Breweries Embrace the Burgeoning Craft Malting Industry - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Breweries Embrace the Burgeoning Craft Malting Industry

Andy Hooper saw making lager as a matter of survival. To keep his yeast healthy in between batches of Alluvium, a German-style pilsner, the brewmaster at Seismic Brewing Co. in Sebastopol, California, brewed a light lager to boost microbial vigor with fresh and sugary wort. “We had an operational necessity to keep our lager yeast alive and healthy,” Hooper says.

Selling pints wasn’t the point. The light lager largely gurgled down a drain, but what wasn’t discarded gained a grassroots fandom among Seismic staff and customers. Waste became want. Small wonder. Hooper’s version featured malt that the Bay Area’s Admiral Maltings made from California-grown barley, the grains contributing characteristics of vanilla and honeysuckle.

Seismic saw potential and rebranded the light lager under a spinoff brand, Tremor California, using organic hops in tandem with organic-certified Admiral malt. The brewery released the lager in 2020 in cans that prominently highlight the California malt. It’s top billing for an ingredient rarely made into a main event. “To most folks, grain is a vehicle to produce alcohol,” Hooper says. “You’re not supposed to think about it.”

Malt is brewing’s most essential and overlooked ingredient, a product of agriculture and careful manipulation. It starts by steeping cereal grains, commonly barley or wheat, to spur germination and the production of enzymes that break starches into fermentable sugars. Kiln-drying curtails germination, creating the pale base malt that becomes the foundation for most beer. (Specialty malts are roasted like coffee beans to the desired dark intensity.) Farms in the Upper Great Plains and Pacific Northwest—notably Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota—grow most American barley, and malting concerns source assorted harvests to create a homogenized commodity of great consistency and affordability.

Breweries now want more than mere sugary potential, seeking flavorful difference in distinctive malt. They’re supporting independent farmers and collaborating with malting companies, sometimes one and the same, for heirloom malts or varieties custom-smoked with lavender. These new-breed malts deliver a sense of time and place and a singular taste, using novel malt to create beers that drink against the grain. The groundswell movement connects “brewers closer to the origins of their foundational ingredient,” says Jesse Bussard, the executive director of the Craft Maltsters Guild, encompassing more than 60 small-scale malting companies across Canada and America.

“Genie” variety barley at Root Shoot Malting in Loveland, Colorado. | Photo by Luke Trautwein/Brewer’s Association.

For craft breweries, malt is a Costco-style bulk buy. Cost decreases with volume, from 50-pound sacks to silos brimming with base malt that originated on farms … somewhere. Ever considered the source of the wheat, rye, and 13 other grains in Pepperidge Farm Whole Grain bread? Probably not.

Maureen Fabry attended the Craft Brewers Apprenticeship Program at the American Brewers Guild, graduating in 1999, her course load emphasizing stylistic parameters for traditional European beer. “We didn’t even talk about locally grown grains,” Fabry says. She worked at Massachusetts breweries, including Boston Beer Works and Berkshire Brewing, for around a decade before pausing to raise her twin boys.

Fabry tiptoed back into beer-making by homebrewing in an inhospitable environment: a small freestanding building free from running water, floor drains, or heat. “It got pretty cold in January,” says Fabry, who wanted to make sure she still had the “fire in the belly for making beer. That was a good way to prove it.” Fabry fueled her rebooted brewing career with a fresh approach to raw materials. Early on, she discovered Valley Malt, the pioneering Massachusetts malt house founded in 2010. Valley Malt sourced barley from regional farmers, sparking an epiphany. “I realized that it could be possible to make a beer that was truly local,” she says. Consider the New England IPA. It contains Pacific Northwest hops and far-flung malt. “What about using New England grain and hops to make a New England IPA?”

She formulated recipes with grains from Valley Malt, as well as Maine Malt House and Blue Ox Malthouse, also in Maine, and Peterson Quality Malt in Vermont. Using regional malt became a founding imperative for CraftRoots Brewing, which Fabry launched in her home setup in 2015. The 10-gallon brewery grew and grew, leading Fabry and her wife, Robin, to open a seven-barrel brewery and taproom in Milford, Massachusetts, in 2017. “We were the fastest growing brewery in America in 2017,” Fabry says, laughing. Core beers such as a blonde ale feature Maine malt and local hops, and Fabry dialogues with her maltsters about grains for future batches. “It’s almost like going into your favorite general store and seeing what’s new.”

Convincing breweries to embrace craft malt can take effort. Craft malts are typically pricier, their flavorful contributions tough to quantify. Historically, brewers assessed malt with a rudimentary chew test.

“There are a lot of unextractable flavors when you chew on grain,” says Bob Hansen, the manager of technical services for Wisconsin’s Briess Malt & Ingredients. To make the process easier and more accessible, former Briess scientist Cassie Poirier helped develop the hot-steep technique, a form of sensory evaluation that’s akin to coffee or tea cupping. “The method identifies flavors that are soluble and can pass forward to beer,” Hansen says.

Riverbend Malt House co-founder Brent Manning appreciates the steep learning curve. The company opened in 2011 in Asheville, North Carolina, with a focus solely on Southern-grown grains, including heirloom Wrens Abruzzi rye. The grains are largely floor malted, a traditional method of germinating barley by spreading it across the floor in a thin layer, keeping grains loose via raking. If breweries express interest and hesitancy, he’ll propose a hot-steep demo. The hope is that brewers notice nuances—“is that honeysuckle?”—that might play well in a forthcoming beer, a recipe built around Riverbend malt. “That’s the type of conversation we want to invite,” Manning says.

Adapting malt to trends is also important. Hazy IPAs have driven demand for oats and wheat, which lend a soft and fluffy mouthfeel. Riverbend already offered Appalachian Wheat, made from North Carolina winter wheat, so it did R&D to create several oat offerings, including Hull and Oats. It’s now one of Riverbend’s better-selling malts. “That’s largely due to hazy IPAs,” Manning says, adding that Appalachian Wheat is the company’s number-three brand.

Creativity is key for craft malt houses. Caleb Michalke started Sugar Creek Malt, located about 30 miles northwest of Indianapolis, on his family farm in 2015. He started by making pilsner malt, a base variety, soon expanding into smoking malts—much of the barley is grown on his farm and around Indiana—over esoteric combustibles. Olive wood added brininess, while Indiana-harvested peat lent phenols and floral seaweed. Tarragon, peppermint, lemon balm, Tabasco barrels, black cherries: everything went up in smoke. Customers can work with Michalke to match grains to a fragrant flammable. “The huge range allows brewers to play around with different smoke character,” Michalke says, in turn expanding recipe books.

Michalke doubled down on innovative malt by building a drum roaster used to make chocolate rice or crystal rye, redolent of raisins and pumpernickel. Michalke next traveled to Norway for lessons in building and operating a såinnhus, a Scandinavian-style malthouse, that he installed in an old barn. He uses his Indiana såinnhus to make historical smoked and wind malts, the latter dried by sunshine and brisk breezes, suited for brewing beers in the mode of Finnish sahti, Polish grodziskie, or Belgian lambic. By thinking beyond base malt, Michalke can expand his. Brewers are “looking for more unique flavors,” he says.

CraftRoots Brewing in Milford, Massachusetts. | Photo by Michael Piazza.

Quality was a top concern for Todd Olander, whose family founded its namesake farm in Loveland, Colorado, in 1926. The Olanders grew barley for Coors from the early 1970s until around a decade ago, at which point the farm left barley production. Todd, the fifth-generation farming Olander, helped revive the tradition with a twist: grow barley and malt it, too. Vertically integrating the farm could “create a revenue stream that’s more sustainable,” he says. “We’re continually fighting development and this loss of farmland. I wanted to get more value off of each acre.”

Malt commands higher prices than barley, though “you’re not going to sell craft malt to anybody if the consistency and quality aren’t there,” Olander says. The family plowed forward by importing high-tech German malting equipment and opened Root Shoot Malting in 2016, using a new barley named Genie. “It malted easier, with less variability,” Olander says of the variety, its honeyed profile winning customers. Denver brewery Station 26 worked with Root Shoot to produce a special malt to “bring locality” to its best-selling Juicy Banger IPA, Olander says. The partnership led to the development of the honey-hinted Genie Pale, Root Shoot’s flagship malt. “If breweries succeed, we’re going to succeed,” Olander says.

Planting new or heirloom barleys helps distinguish farms that also malt. Each year, the American Malting Barley Association recommends varieties for U.S. growers, a list that includes around 40 barleys suited for planting in spring or winter—the two growing seasons. However, thousands of barley varieties exist, including Arabian Blue and Purple Prairie. “There’s a whole world of flavor out there that’s really unexplored,” says Seth Klann, a seventh-generation Oregon farmer and owner of Mecca Grade Estate Malt, which opened in 2015.

Klann’s family farm is in central Oregon’s high-desert Madras, located about an hour north of Bend. The 1,000 acres of irrigated farmland support rye, several kinds of wheat, and a semi-dwarf spring barley called Full Pint, developed by Oregon State University breeders. Full Pint is a hybrid of Czech and Ecuadorean barley that thrives in dry climates, creating malt that contributes an underlying note of macadamia nuts. “There’s no reason to grow and malt the same varieties as the bigger guys,” Klann says.

Mecca Grade, named after an old roadway on the property, only malts its estate grains that are named after nearby ghost towns, including the pilsner-style Pelton, and Vanora, suited for Vienna-style lagers. Initially, Klann homebrewed with his malt and gave samples to visiting brewers and distillers, but growing interest led him to legally license his brewing operation. The taproom pours Mecca Grade

Estate Malt beer including pilsners, hazy IPAs, and farmhouse ales bittered with local yarrow that head brewer Sean Osborne brews one barrel at a time. “We can’t make enough beer,” says Klann, who’s considering expanding production.

Handling malt production gives breweries greater control over their beer, a fact understood by the world’s largest breweries; Pilsner Urquell, Molson Coors Beverage Company, and Anheuser-Busch InBev all maintain malting operations. Craft breweries are now going grain-to-glass. The Colorado Farm Brewery, in Alamosa, serves beer made with malt from its associated Colorado Malting Company. Mad Fritz in Napa Valley malts local California barley, while Subversive Malting + Brewing in Catskill, New York, uses the state’s barley. Founders Zane Coffey and Max Ocean created the concept as undergrads at Ithaca College, where the homebrewing friends noted the state’s burgeoning craft malt industry and “went down the rabbit hole,” Ocean says. They won a college grant and built a bare-bones malting setup in Germantown, a small town hugging the Hudson River.

“We couldn’t raise capital around a concept we weren’t 100 percent sure we could execute,” Ocean says. The first batch hit specs, and Subversive soon submitted its state application for a brewing license. By late 2018, they opened a Catskill taproom to serve malts spun into great lagers, pale ales, and more. Running two locations was operationally challenging, so Subversive relocated to a nearby bus garage outfitted with brewing tanks and space for floor malting. Coffey brews while Ocean malts, the two working in concert and creating new ingredients as needed. When Subversive decided to add a stout to its lineup, it retrofitted a pepper roaster with a BBQ thermometer and made the malts used in stouts such as Dark Harvest. Sure, Subversive could’ve bought dark malts, but Ocean and Coffey embraced the challenge. “It’s what we get excited about,” he says.

CraftRoots Brewing in Milford, Massachusetts. From left: IPAx2, Sister Soul Shine, Blonde Ale. | Photo by Michael Piazza.

It’s easy to blather about malt’s importance in beer. It’s tougher to discuss malt’s distinctive qualities. How do you describe the flavor of a malt-rich beer? Malty? Biscuity? Bready? They’re broad and blah adjectives. Linguistic specificity helps foster deeper appreciation, a winter-ready roasty stout tasting of plums, dark chocolate, and freshly tilled earth. Several years ago, the sensory company DraughtLab helped develop the Base Malt Flavor Map and the Specialty Malt Flavor Map, providing cues for dialed-in descriptions. Smoke can be ashy, peat, wood char, or cigarette, while spicy might be as precise as cinnamon, root beer, or black pepper.

Admiral Maltings, makers of Seismic’s Tremor California malt, favors a tasteful educational approach. The floor-malting facility, based in Alameda, California, opened in 2017 and works with the state’s farmers to grow its barley, rye, wheat, and more. The company invites everyone to its on-premise pub, the Rake, which pours beers containing the company’s malt, the specific variety touted on the menu. Customers can drink Hermitage Brewing’s Por Adentro Mexican-style lager, made with Pacific Victor malt that adds hints of almonds, sweet tea, and honey. “We wanted to take malt from this esoteric ingredient that no one knew about and really display it,” says Curtis Davenport, a founder and the head maltster. From the tasting room, “people can look out on the malt floor and see a ton of barley, and then drink a beer and realize that all the variation in color and mouthfeel comes from how we’re transforming raw grain into a really dynamic product.”

Demand for Admiral malt has continually increased, to the point this summer that Admiral started pushing orders to autumn or even winter. “It’s always good news for the farmers when we tell them that we need more barley, but it takes planning,” Davenport says. During summer of 2021, “we’re projecting what barley we’ll need between now and the summer of 2023,” he says. Forecasting is difficult in the face of climate change. Polar vortexes, heat domes, and cataclysmic deluges can arrive with a random climatic dice roll. Last summer’s wildfire smoke blanketed Oregon, causing the “worst air quality we’ve ever had,” says Mecca Grade’s Klann. Summer’s warmth can accelerate germination, but his barley struggled to sprout amid the steady smoke. “Barley is a living thing, and it reminded us that we’re breathing in the same stuff,” says Klann, who called the malt Lionshead after the conflagration. Sugar Creek intended to only malt Indiana grains, but the state’s climate isn’t perfect for barley production, Michalke says. “Some years we luck out and get a really great harvest, and some years we get absolutely nothing.” His Rolodex includes farmers in Kentucky, Michigan, and—if everything else fails—Idaho. “Quality has to come first over locality,” Michalke says.

Massive malt companies traffic in scale, trucking tens of millions of pounds of dependable malt to breweries far and wide. Beer shelves would be barren without their efforts. Competing on volume or cost is a recipe for ruin, but being small can benefit upstart malt houses. Why not smoke a malt with old Tabasco barrels? Spicy malt sounds fun! And if the experiment fails, then try, try again. Breweries are lauded for far- out beers, dosing brews with donuts and Sour Patch Kids. New malts can further expand our concept of beer, origin stories told from ground to glass or can. In 2019, the Craft Maltsters Guild launched the Craft Malt Certified program for breweries and distilleries to affix a seal to finished products, such as Old Tuffy Premium Lager. The partnership between North Carolina State and New Belgium’s Asheville brewery contains a portion of Riverbend Malt’s Southern Select, made from barley grown in North Carolina. Examine the seal, featuring an illustration of rooting plants, and the message is clear: “Beer is agriculture,” Manning says.

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