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The Romance of Malting in a Microcosm

“A biologist, a chemist and a farmer walk into a bar.” Sounds like the beginning of a classic pub joke, doesn’t it? But these days, real-life drama surrounds this new breed of “scientists”—micro-maltsters, romanced by the lure of the craft, with their own hands at the epicenter.

“We want to supply those who want to make a truly local craft beer,” says Mark Brault of Deer Creek Malthouse in Chester County. “This is for those who value a local, high-quality, artisan product—people like smaller craft brewers, smaller distillers, and local homebrewers, for sure.”

Their craft starts at the ground level, with seed heads steaming and damp on the floor of a garage or 150-year-old barn. Inside each hull, an embryo grows—the acrospire, along with enzymes and starches needed to nourish yeast in the brewing process. From these starches, maltose provides the sugars that will convert to alcohol and carbon dioxide, while dextrins provide fullness.

The acrospire develops next to the larger endosperm, as rootlets push out from the hull, like little legs in an animated cartoon. During germination, these rootlets grow to about twice the length of the grain. In the process, the dampened hulls require raking and turning to separate the gnarly rootlets and prevent molds from forming within the damp mass on the cool floor. It takes time and patience. For the maltster, this process becomes a labor-of-love—a waiting game for the right moment when drying and roasting can begin.

In some malthouses, equipment bootstrapped-together echoes bygone days of 19th century craftsmen. In others, equipment akin to a rocket motor or NASA satellite, have been re-configured from blueprints pulled from old engineering books. It’s enough to make MacGyver jealous. Aside from equipment for large-scale malting, few options exist, so engineering and invention becomes a part of the maltster’s modus operandi.

Why bother?

Remember the hoopla in the craft beer world surrounding Belgian yeast, wild fermentation and Brettanomyces cultures? Walking hand-in-hand with beer’s “cultural” revolution were those distinctive designer hops that could peel the skin off the roof of your mouth. Simply put, sour-lovers loved horse-blanket and hopheads couldn’t get enough resin, pine needles, and grapefruit rind.

Artisan brewers readily embraced the raw materials of yeast and hops. But what about grain, hand-raked and slow roasted in a self-designed space capsule? Some would be discouraged by the economies of scale needed to create true terroir as a local maltster. After all, “It takes a village.”

Micro-malting is, perhaps, the most “grass roots” (pardon the pun) process in the craft beer world, one with a growing demand in the healthiest craft beer communities of the country, including our own Pennsylvania farmlands. Local Glen Mills is now home to Deer Creek Malthouse, founded by Biologist Mark Brault, Chemist Josh Oliver and Farmer Scott Welsh. As part of their quality control, they are avid homebrewers, trumped by Welsh, a member of the Main Line Brewers Association. “It’s a collaborative effort of community,” asserts Mark Brault.

“For a craft beer producer to not have a craft malt seemed off to me,” he says. With his experience as a homebrewer, becoming a micro-maltster seemed like a natural progression. It was “about bringing the beer closer to the farmer,” he continues.

Knowing where to begin was the problem.

Designing the Process

When Christian and Andrea Stanley founded Valley Malt in 2010, their minds whirled with the romance of the artisanal life. Focused on small-scale malting, they joined the cutting edge of a movement that stepped back in history, guided by pamphlets from 1943 and their own imagination.

With a self-designed micro-malthouse in Hadley, Massachusetts, they began inspiring local craft brewers, particularly out-of-the-box thinkers like Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware, Will Meyers of Cambridge Brewing in Massachusetts, and Rob Tod of Allagash Brewing in Portland, Maine. In the process, they became role models for the offbeat ingenuity of people like Brault, Welsh and Oliver.

These micro-maltsters are part of an American dream to bring back unique processes that had been wiped out during The Great Experiment of Temperance. By trial and error, much of the process is based on theory. “There aren’t many options for making one-to-five ton batches,” explains Brault.

In 2004, Lance Jergensen of Rebel Malting resurrected micro-malting in Reno, Nevada, following a trip to Denmark where he observed the old-world craft first-hand. His tiny operation focuses on supplying malt for local homebrewers or one-off batches for nearby craft brewers or distillers. A recent collaboration project with Great Basin Brewery Company and the Nevada Museum of Art produced beer from his malted emmer wheat, one of the traditional grains used for ancient brewing in the Fertile Crescent.

Focused on sustainability, Jergensen’s malthouse utilizes technology that decreases water usage by 30%. He has developed “parabolic solar troughs,” collecting enough sunshine for heat during the initial stage of kilning.

In 2006, Bruno Vachon established Malterie Frontenac in Thetford Mines, Quebec. As suppliers of malt for Boston Beer’s Infinium, he has already achieved a reputation for producing fresh, hand-crafted malt in batches large enough to satisfy the artisan branch of Sam Adams.

Since then, other artisan maltsters have cropped up across the country:

  • Colorado Malting in Alamosa;
  • Rogue’s Farmstead Malt House in Tygh Valley, Oregon;
  • Riverbend Malt House In Asheville, North Carolina;
  • Valley Malt of Hadley, Massachusetts;
  • FarmHouse Malt of Newark Valley, New York;
  • Pilot Malt House of Grand Rapids, Michigan;
  • Deer Creek Malthouse in Pennsylvania

Keystone Malt has joined the short list of maltsters this year, founded by Alan Gladish of Praxis Communications in Huntingdon Valley, PA.

There are plenty of mega-maltsters dominating the market in America, led by Briess, Cargill, Weyermann, and more—all with vibrant portfolios, distributed through trumped-up networks like The Country Malt Group, Cargill Foods, or Crosby & Baker. But how dedicated are these mega-malthouses to the small craft brewer or homebrewer? Can micro-maltsters capture an edge? Can they overcome the pizzazz going on with yeast or hops?

The Grain Wars

For the local homebrewer, buying high quality malt for a reasonable price has become more difficult in recent years. Rising grain prices, created by the biofuel revolution, make it critical to protect the supply of malt for the growing commercial beer market. “One-quarter of all the maize and other grain crops grown in the US now ends up as biofuel in cars rather than being used to feed people,” wrote John Vidal, Environmental Editor for The Guardian, in a 2010 article. According to Lester Brown, Director of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, DC, “The growing demand for US ethanol derived from grains helped to push world grain prices to record highs between late 2006 and 2008.” That trend has not changed.

Homebrewers complain of diminishing supply and higher prices, blaming homebrew shops for what appears to be price collusion with large commercial suppliers. The stats reveal a different story. Lester Jones, Chief Economist for the NBWA recently noted that the number of brewery permits in 2014 has topped 4,526. In 1995, fewer than 1,000 were on the books.

In reality, growing demand, brought about by record high brewery openings and competition from the biofuel industry, has created a very real shortage that impacts homebrewers and small craft breweries at the lower levels of the grain chain. The need for micro-maltsters in the current brewing community is greater than ever.

According to Brault of Deer Creek, developing a viable business plan requires a collaborative effort of community. It’s not as romantic or sexy as one might imagine. “We’re still not 100% sure what it takes—what varieties grow well here,” he says. Cultivars need disease resistance, dormancy, pre-harvest sprouting, winter hardiness—qualities that increase the yield at the finish line. Scott Welsh, agriculturist for the group, does most of the legwork and labor, and has involved Penn State in his research. This year alone, they have had 78 varieties in the ground, says Brault.

When asked if it’s possible to grow enough grain for malting, Brault explains, “We grow some ourselves, and also contract grow with farmers in Chester, Montgomery and Bucks, along with areas of Maryland.”

Micro-maltsters hone-in on harnessing the freshness and local flavor that “adds to the unique terroir of the product.” Despite that, flavors are tricky. The only accurate way of determining quality is by brewing the same beer using commercial versus micro-malt; then doing a blind tasting. Tastings have shown that fresh and local are recognizable. “There is no real common lexicon for describing flavor,” says Brault. “We have a product that tastes like Deer Creek.”

Alan Gladish has contracted Tom Culton, a Lancaster County Certified Organic Farmer, to provide 2-row winter barley and rye and 2-row spring barley for his soon-to-open Keystone Malt. Rumors point to the new malthouse operating from the Frankford Arsenal, but no real decision has been confirmed. For now, having two micro-maltsters on this side of the state is a plus for Philly’s booming brewing community.

About Mat Falco

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