In Southern California we proudly “drink local.” Having a favorite brewery in your community is part of your identity as a craft beer consumer. But the beer you are drinking is not as local as you think; domestic base malt is grown and malted almost entirely in the northern and middle United States. Thanks to the entrepreneurial efforts of craft maltsters, however, this is changing for the first time since the craft beer movement began.
California Malting Co.
California Malting Co. is a new craft malting operation in Santa Barbara County. Curtis Davenport – farmer and micro-maltster – oversees his 2014 planting of 2-row barley on fifty acres, sharing land with vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley. Davenport is at the forefront of a changing industry. He expects to yield about two tons per acre from his current crop, which he will harvest in July or August of 2014. West Coaster recently put him in touch with Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks operation, and he’ll soon provide them malt for a small-batch collaboration with local homebrewers utilizing wild yeast from the area. Last year, Davenport successfully sold his first viable load to Telegraph Brewing Co. in Santa Barbara and to two microbreweries opening in Goleta and Carpinteria. To malt his 2013 barley, he leased a kiln from Rebel Malting Co. in Reno, Nevada and repurposed a shipping container into a traditional floor malting system.
While Davenport hopes to increase California Malting Co.’s yield and malting capacity to the point where he can provision a regional craft brewery, which would require about 500 tons, malting is only one aspect of Davenport’s vision. “I’m most interested in connecting farmers who want to grow heirloom grain with brewers who can preserve the identity of the grain,” said Davenport. “With the current state of the industry, this is impossible.” No infrastructure is in place to turn a regional farm’s barley into malt for a craft brewery, and giant malting facilities could never process such a customized load.
Davenport’s agricultural concerns dovetail with this opportunity to supply a niche market. “I come from a farming perspective over brewing. The initial motivation for California Malting Co. was to promote the agricultural benefits of grain crops. Barley is a ‘dryland crop’ that needs little to no irrigation in an average year, so it can be well-suited to California. But I also want farmers to see the benefit of rotating crops. For example, if you take acreage of vegetables out of production for the entire year and rotate in a grass like barley, you are restoring organic material to the soil,” Davenport explained. The biodynamic advantages don’t end there: “If you have fields of tomatoes, squash, and strawberries, pests and diseases that target those crops will flourish – rotate barley in and you can break their life cycle and naturally reduce them the next year.”
Davenport in Central California. Photo by Kristina Yamamoto
A Wyoming native, Davenport grew up in Colorado and attended Westmont College in Santa Barbara as a biology major with an ecology focus. He went on to work with esteemed organic Santa Barbara farmer Tom Shepherd for three years, where he gained experience with native grass restoration and became interested in barley. Davenport is a fan of breweries that make rustic, earthy saisons showcasing malts in a traditional way, like Upright Brewing Co. out of Portland, Oregon. “I would love to see farmhouse beers made on farms,” he said. Funky sours and eastern European pilsners also exhibit flavors that fuel his passion for raw ingredients.
If malt is the focus, why not grow and process specialty malt that you can sell in smaller quantities at a higher price? “My focus in base malt is simply because it is what 90% of beer is made of. I’m interested in altering grains as little as possible. If I have something special like White Sonora Wheat I don’t want to roast it to the point where its subtleties are replaced by too much char. Low-kilning base malt allows the grain to have its unique characteristics shine through. But I understand the importance of crystal and caramel malt, and I’m interested in making them eventually.”
Craft Maltsters Gaining Momentum
In March 2012 a group of North American craft maltsters entered into talks about their emerging industry. At the 2013 Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) in Washington D.C. they set goals for bylaws and applied for non-profit status, and in January of 2014 their website went live. The Craft Maltsters Guild’s first annual meeting took place in Denver at the 2014 CBC in April. Their mission is “to promote and educate the general public about the tradition of craft malting in North America,” with 37 malt houses in the guild’s current database.
Recognizing the need to open the lines of communication between the malting and brewing industries, aBrewers Association (BA) working group comprised of prestigious brewers and industry professionals has prepared a white paper for publishing at the end of April that includes a wish list for all maltsters. Chris Swersey, Technical Brewing Projects Coordinator for the BA, oversaw the paper throughout development. “There are technical elements to the paper, but really it is the result of hundreds of conversations over the last few years with breeders, growers, maltsters, and brewers,” Swersey said. “We’re trying to distill some of the things we’ve heard and learned about ideals for malting barley. We are looking into key areas; for instance: what is the diastatic power of the malt you use now and what would it be ideally? We want a consensus, even a range – some sort of happy spot for all-malt brewers. Then we look at how that differs from what is currently being offered.”
Curtis, checking his crop. Photo by Kristina Yamamoto
Malting is a tradition historically bound to America’s identity – Samuel Adams worked in his family’s malthouse, not as a brewer. The practice has waned since Prohibition. But just as the beer industry has changed significantly in the last thirty years, so too will the malt industry shortly. “This is important,” Swersey said, “because while craft brewers are making 7.8% of the volume of beer in the U.S., a pretty small proportion, they are consuming around 27% of the malt consumed by all U.S. brewers. Maltsters sell volume. Craft beer is four to five years away from gobbling up one-third of the malt consumed by U.S. brewers. It can take eight to ten years to bring a new malting barley variety into industrial production. Because brewers’ needs differ from what is available, change with intent needs to begin now.”
More research is needed on malted barley. Swersey continued, “We don’t even have the nomenclature for talking about flavor and aroma in base malt, besides generalizations of the raw ingredient. Ask twelve different brewers about what malt flavor means and you’ll get twelve different answers.” The most significant research on the subject is being done at North Dakota State University, Oregon State University, and University of Idaho.
Advantages of Craft Malting
Almost all of the domestic malt used in U.S. beer – macro and craft alike – comes from a few industrial malting facilities in North America. These large-scale plants handle quantities of barley shipped in by train car from a number of states. Regardless of whether the production levels of the breweries they are supplying are in the thousands, or millions, of barrels per year, the base malt is often the same. This is at odds with the ethos of craft beer.
Andrea Stanley, President of the Craft Maltsters Guild and owner of Valley Malt in Hadley, Massachusetts explained, “One of the major reasons craft beer has been successful comes from the desire to support local. Craft malt is more expensive than commodity malt but we offer what they can’t: a locally-sourced primary ingredient.” The importance of craft malt isn’t just to uphold craft beer values, Stanley told West Coaster. “Barley is a cover crop that restores the soil. It is agriculturally beneficial to farmers, but until recently they had no one to sell it to in parts of the country like New England. If the craft malting industry can help small farms stay viable, that is in everyone’s interest. Farmers have a hard time direct-marketing, so we’ve created a new market for them.”
Additionally, the flavor potential of craft malt is greater than what is currently available. “A large malting company can’t blow a 100-ton batch on experimental flavors,” Davenport said. “There’s real potential to taste differences in barley from a particular region or year, but the territory is unexplored. We should be thinking about breeding specific varieties of barley for their flavor and regional growing requirements, not their disease resistance.” Craft malting is the necessary step between a regional family farm that wants to incorporate a rotation of barley and a brewer working on a 15 to 30 bbl system.
Growing and Malting
2-row barley is planted from seed in November right before the rainy season begins (in a non-drought year). A seedhead emerges on the sheath of grass as the plant grows to waist height about four months after planting. By summer the barley begins to dry out and is harvested with a combine when the grain has a moisture content of 13%. Because malt is sold by weight, the health and heft of each grain is the primary factor in producing a successful yield. After harvest the straw stalk might go back to the grower – Davenport gives his to one of his farmers, who then uses it for various purposes in his pumpkin patch – and the raw barley is sent to a seed cleaner before the barley kernels are sent to the maltster, during which the plant undergoes a short dormancy.
The malting process begins when barley kernels steep in water in a large, conical tank at about 58 degrees F for two days. Saturated with fluid that activates enzymes, the “chitted barley” now begins germination. Keeping the grain aerated at this point is essential for development, and it prevents any fungal growth. A traditional maltster utilizes floor malting, a process in which damp grain packed about four inches deep is regularly turned with a shovel. Modern and industrial maltsters use a pneumatic malting germination system which is automated and can handle much larger loads.
Three to five days into germination, an acrospire grows at one end underneath the husk and tiny rootlets emerge from the other side, while beta glucanase breaks down cell walls – this is called modification. This readies enzymes that will convert the grain’s starches to fermentable sugar that yeast can eat and make into beer. A maltster observes what state of modification the grain is in, and then determines if it is time to terminate germination in the “green malt” which has swollen to 46% moisture content. It is essential that modification be observed closely, as different malt requires a different level of development; a pilsner malt is less modified than 2-row barley malt, for example. Under-modified malt will clog a brewing system and over-modified malt will produce beer with too little body.
Germination and modification are terminated by the application of indirect heat, called kilning. This also stabilizes starches and gently toasts the grain. Kilning is done low and slow; at its highest point over a 24-hour period, the temperature will not exceed 200 degrees F. Now the finished base malt, which has dried out to 3% moisture, is ready for storage and use.
As the demand and popularity for craft beer continues to rise, small farmers and micro-maltsters have stepped up to deliver what large companies can’t: regionally-focused, premium-quality barley. Imagine the one-off possibilities if there were signature barley types for every growing region in America. Like the Maris Otter variety, the flavor and performance of which can’t be replicated anywhere outside the United Kingdom, California could have its own malt.
Not only are operations like California Malting Co. offering craft beer drinkers broader selection and a more nuanced, local product, they are reinvigorating the relationship between growers and brewers. “The conversation has started,” said Chris Swersey. “The malt market is fast becoming more complex and increasingly differentiated.”