Malters Bring Terroir to the Beer Bottle
By PETER ANDREY SMITH
The New York Times
Published: June 12, 2012
AT 8:30 one Monday evening, Christian Stanley pulled on his jacket. His 7-year-old daughter, who was reluctantly headed up to bed, asked, “Where are you going, Daddy?” His reply: “To the malt house.”
Since they founded Valley Malt in 2010, the malt house has become a little like a fourth child for Mr. Stanley, a mechanical engineer, and his wife and business partner, Andrea. It needs round-the-clock attention and even wakes them up occasionally with text messages on its progress.
On this evening, Mr. Stanley, 35, drove four blocks through his quiet residential neighborhood to a small garage crammed with equipment: a forklift, a grain auger, a Shop-Vac, two big sacks of wheat and a stainless-steel tank connected to a jumble of ductwork. He stripped off his jacket, pulled on a pair of rubber boots and opened the hinged top of his malt vessel, which looks something like a rocket ship. Grabbing a battered shovel, he leapt into the tank and began stirring 1,850 pounds of steamy New Hampshire wheat — a workout, but well worth the effort.
“Without malt,” he said, “there’d be no beer.”
As humble and jerry-built as the setup looks, this garage is on the cutting edge of the craft brewing movement. Driven by a growing awareness that the only thing local in most “local” beers is the water, microbrewers all over the country have begun using regional hops, fruits and honey. Now, many are taking the next logical step and snapping up local grains.
But brewing with homegrown barley or estate-grown wheat involves another process that has been overlooked for much of the last century: malt-making.
Before grain can be fermented into beer or whiskey, it has to be malted — a weeklong process of carefully sprouting seeds and then drying them before the little sprout, or acrospire, emerges too far from the kernel. The malting unlocks starch-splitting enzymes and primes a grain for brewing.
The Stanleys are among a half-dozen American entrepreneurs reviving the craft on a small scale. Last year, Valley Malt cranked out 30 tons of malt. Batches went to the Cambridge Brewing Company, in Cambridge, Mass.; Throwback Brewery, in North Hampton, N.H.; and the Wormtown Brewing Company, in Worcester, Mass., as well as three distillers making whiskey. Peak Organic, in Portland, Me., used the Stanleys’ malts for its Local Series; the Allagash Brewing Company, also in Portland, had a Maine-grown barley malted for its 2011 Hugh Malone Ale; and Dogfish Head brewery, in Milton, Del., added a malted hard red wheat to its Noble Rot beer.
The Stanleys have invested about $200,000 in Valley Malt, which they say is turning a profit, though they plow all that back into the business, and Mr. Stanley has kept his day job. Now, national craft brewers have come calling. This spring, the Stanleys have installed new equipment that can process about four tons of malt each week, more than quadrupling their previous capacity.
Yet Valley Malt is still a flyspeck in the brewing world. “We’re probably the biggest buyer of local grain in Massachusetts, but we’re barely anything on the beer scale of things,” Mr. Stanley said. “People do one-off batches with our malt. We have nowhere near the capacity to support a brewery.”
Still, the recent birth of small malting companies in places like Las Vegas; Asheville, N.C.; and Thetford Mines, Quebec, appears poised to lubricate the already explosive growth of craft beer. Because maltsters, as they call themselves, occupy a middle ground between grain growers and brewers (and because they generally buy more grains than bakers or chefs), they are well positioned to help revive interest in heirloom and long-forgotten grains with distinctive flavors and aromas.
Glenn Roberts, the owner of Anson Mills in Columbia, S.C., and a leading proponent of artisan grain-growers, said that what the budding movement lacks in capacity, it compensates for in ingenuity. “It works like any great chef,” he said. “You have total control over ingredients and can drive up quality. You’re creative, and you’re constantly spinning out new ideas. That’s the future of brewing.”
But being small has its challenges. The malting industry is dominated, if not controlled, by large companies, like Cargill, that can deliver huge quantities of inexpensive malt right to a brewery’s back door. Most barley growers and maltsters cater to big brewers — Anheuser-Busch InBev, MillerCoors — that don’t often celebrate the malting process (perhaps, in part, because of the stigma attached to high-alcohol malt liquors). One pioneer of commercial micro-malting, Jason Cody of the Colorado Malting Company in Alamosa, Colo., said it was difficult simply learning the details of the process, which brewers have guarded like a trade secret.
“The only way we got into it was through some old Coors employees who taught us how to do it,” he said.
Other micro-maltsters have turned to arcane textbooks, or trial and error. These start-ups not only have to reinvent an ancient craft, but because small malt houses largely disappeared during Prohibition, and because modern off-the-shelf malting systems are gigantic, they’re also forced to design and make their own equipment.
The Stanleys started out as home brewers and earnest locavores. They dreamed of starting a brewery that exclusively used local hops and grains. After calling around, though, they discovered that nobody knew where to make malt in Massachusetts. So they took matters into their own hands.
They began watching Australian men explain the process on YouTube videos. They picked up books on British malting and hard-to-find pamphlets published by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1943.
Mr. Stanley cobbled together a small prototype system using a bathroom fan and a double boiler with 1,600 hand-drilled holes. “I used to work at a fuel cell company,” he said, “so I tell people I miss R & D so much that I had to start my own company. Malting is an outlet where I get to do stuff with my hands instead of just staring at a computer.”
Back at the malt house, Mr. Stanley paused from shoveling. A cloud of steam, smelling vaguely of salad sprouts, escaped the malt vessel. Air began hissing though a grate under the grain, like a giant hot-air corn popper. He closed the hatch. After three to four more days, the malted barley would be toasty, biscuity and ready for a batch of Throwback Brewery wheat beer.
Mr. Stanley hopes the malt revival can stem the tide of hop-heavy pale ales, enabling craft brewers to focus on malt’s sweet, rich character and, in turn, open up a new kind of terroir for American craft brewers to explore.
“Even if a barley is the same variety as one grown out West,” he said. “We’re hoping it has a certain flavor here that is different from elsewhere, much like you could have a pinot noir grown in Oregon and one grown in France.”
As he headed home, Mr. Stanley drove past old storage barns and fallow fields. Settlers first built malt houses in Hadley more than 350 years ago, and the Stanleys have revived an important piece of the town’s agrarian past without, so far, disrupting its residents. The town administrator, David Nixon, himself a home brewer, said that the malt house complied with local zoning laws. Even if neighbors catch a whiff of toasted grains, it is overwhelmed by the far more potent smell of freshly spread manure at nearby dairy farms.
Back at home, Mr. Stanley rummaged around his kitchen for beer. But the only bottles on hand — a case of Peak Organic and two of Sam Adams — had been promised to a fellow maltster and a farmer who harvested barley for them. So, despite his dedication to one of brewing’s lost arts, Mr. Stanley plopped down with two refreshing glasses of tap water.