Insane in the grain
Matthew Curtis gets (over) excited about the future of malt
Tuesday 14 April 2020
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A couple of years ago I decided to put together a talk and tasting focusing on malt, and its significance within beer. My aim was to get people as interested in malt as they are in hops, and to a lesser extent, yeast and fun, funky bacteria.
At the talk I presented five tasty beers to try, and had plenty of spiel about malt production prepped to keep my room of 20 thirsty audience-members interested – or so I thought. In reality, I toiled internally as I watched eyes glaze over as I used technical terms like endosperm and alpha-amylase. While the beers were enjoyed, I realised that I would have to work on my pitch if I was to get more people engaged in the importance of the malted grains that are so vital in the production of beer.
Not too long before this I’d met a guy called Chris Schooley. In 2014 he founded Troubadour Maltings in the Northern Colorado town of Fort Collins, along with his business partner Steve Clark. Since then they’ve made their malt from locally grown Colorado barley 5 tons at a time (by comparison, Crisp Malt in the UK makes 200 tons per batch) and have supplied malt to American breweries such as Odell Brewing, Oskar Blues and TRVE Brewing in Denver, among others.
Chris knows how to talk about malt with passion and enthusiasm. A minute spent with him is enough to get anyone excited about this wonderful agricultural product. My challenge: to figure out how to convey that same message to everyone else, and have you as thrilled about reaching for the can that says “brewed with Maris Otter” as you would be if it said “double dry-hopped with Citra and Mosaic,” when you’re walking the beer aisles.
“Knowing and caring about malt and malt production is like taking a black and white experience and turning it into a technicolor one,” Schooley tells me. “Or like hearing Crimson & Clover through tiny computer speakers versus being surrounded by it in quadraphonic sound!”
Troubadour is one of a growing wave of so-called “craft maltsters” in the US. There’s more than 60 of them, from very small to mid-sized (when compared to a typical UK malting facility), each with a strong focus on locality, terroir and making the best product possible. What this means is – say you drank a beer made with Troubadour’s malt like a crispy, refreshing kellerbier from TRVE – Schooley would be able to opine about the exact field the barley that went into that beer was grown in, giving the beer some sense of place in the process.
"Malt is the soul of beer," he said. "Hops are just the lipstick."
For maltsters like Schooley, this idea of terroir is important, as in his eyes it gives drinkers like you and I a physical connection to the ingredients that make the beers we’re drinking so delicious. It helps that this new wave of malt makers is also producing something that can easily be described in the same terms and tasting notes as the beer it’s made with. I remember the first time I tasted Troubadour’s Blue Ballad Munich-style malt and tasting almonds and graham crackers.
“Ultimately, drinkers should care [about malt] because drinking is an experience,” Schooley continues. “If malt is just treated as an afterthought, that's all it's ever going to taste like.”
I’VE GOT SOUL
I’ve always been fascinated by malt. This is likely because my dad worked in genetics and seed development for most of his life, and so there were always interesting conversations to be had about wheat, barley, and of course, beer. And, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve often struggled to convey this same interest and excitement to other beer enthusiasts, despite my lack of trying.
I’m often reminded of something Euan Macpherson, the now retired, former director of Crisp Malt – one of the UK’s largest malt producers – told me when I first visited its headquarters in Great Ryburgh, Norfolk, in 2016.
“Malt is the soul of beer,” he said. “Hops are just the lipstick.”
While I appreciate this comment is, perhaps, designed to be a little incendiary, it was certainly effective, as it’s something I think about often. You can sell a beer quite effectively by telling the drinker what hops it uses. There is something enticing about words like Citra, Galaxy or Nelson Sauvin being laid out in bold type along the front of a can. And for me, these days, the mere mention of Hallertau Mittelfrüh or Tettnang has me feeling the vapours.
However, if you did the same with, say, Golden Promise, or Maris Otter, for many beer enthusiasts it probably won’t illicit the same reaction. And that’s a shame, because Euan was right. Malt is the soul of a beer. It’s usually the best part of it, and often requires the most effort from the brewer: from shifting heavy sacks of grain into the mill, to mashing out by hand midway through a long brewday. It’s also delicious, and in a craft beer world more and more obsessed with the intensity of modern, juicy hops, more and more often for me it’s a crutch I look to lean on.
Too often is malt referred to as the "backbone" of beer
At Crisp there has been significant investment in several new processes and state-of-the-art equipment in order to continue to develop and improve the quality of malt available to brewers, both big and small. In 2018 it spent almost £7 million on both improvements and technological developments. Just over half this fee went on a state of the art packaging line and mill, allowing small brewers better access to Crisp’s product, thanks to streamlined production.
The other portion of this investment was on what Crisp calls its speciality malt plant. This intriguing looking device, which stands some 30 feet tall, comprises of two metal spirals that rise out of the 40 cubic metres of concrete they’re set into like some kind of covert Soviet science experiment. It works by vigorously “shaking” the malt up each column sequentially, heating it as it does so. The evenness of the way heat is applied to each grain allows Crisp to create very consistent speciality products such as crystal or chocolate malt.
“A thin layer of raw material moving through our system in intimate contact with the heating surface results in more homogenous heating, with resulting benefits to product consistency in terms of both colour and flavour,” Crisps Technical director Dr. David Griggs explains to me. I’m reminded a little of my prior audience and their hazy gazes, but to me this kind of thing is endlessly fascinating.
“[The speciality malt plant] will give us greater consistency of colour and a potential to provide more specific colour versions of traditional coloured malt products. There’s lots of new product development potential,” he says.
This is just one example of the way Crisp is innovating in order to keep up with a rapidly shifting, increasingly demanding beer market. Brewers are constantly looking for ways to improve their product in terms of both quality and consistency – and also for that unique “x factor” that makes their product stand out in a crowded market.
With a lot of new product development in beer being so often focused on new hop varieties (and hopping techniques) or types of yeast – like the fascinating Kveik strains emerging from traditional Norwegian farmhouse brewing – it’s somewhat reassuring to see this happening with malt too. Too often is malt referred to as the “backbone” of beer, when I feel in many instances its varied flavours should be front and centre, instead of lurking in the shadows out of mere necessity.
Crisp doesn’t just look forward, however. It’s also taken a look back, employing positively Jurassic Park style research in the resurrection of traditional, out of production barley varieties, such as Plumage Archer and Chevallier – the latter which was originally introduced as far back as 1820. It also malts these grains in the traditional way, using the floor maltings which have been used to produce malt since its Great Ryburgh site was established in 1870.
The purpose of the malting process is essentially to trick the grain into germinating, so as to unlock the sugars and enzymes that are locked away inside it, before halting this process via heating the germinating grain. This is achieved by first allowing freshly harvested barley to dry for several weeks, before its moisture content drops below 14% so it’s suitable for malting. The grains are then steeped in water, where they can begin to germinate (during this stage the grain will actually begin to sprout) before being kilned when it has reached its most desirable state.
The majority of malt these days is produced using modern, mechanised processes. However, some is produced the traditional way, arduously and by hand, using traditional floor malting techniques. Examples of this can be found at Warminster Maltings in the town of the same name, and at Crisp, where approximately 1.5% of its output is made this way.
At Cheshire Brewhouse, founder and brewer Shane Swindells has been using Crisp’s floor malted Chevallier and Plumage archer in beers such as his Govinda IPA, with interesting – and tasty – results.
“My work with Heritage Barley has only just scratched the surface of what I’d like to have done, but old, [once] defunct varieties give much more flavour, aroma and mouthfeel than modern ones,” Swindells tells me. “But they are harder to work with as a result, you really have to think about how you are going to use them to best effect.”
I’M NOT A SOLDIER
When I think about some of my all-time favourite beers – say Odell IPA, Mahrs Bräu AU Lager or Harvey’s Sussex Best – their defining feature is that malt does not hide or simply “support” the hop flavours present in the beer. Here the taste of malt is integral to the flavour, be it sweet, sturdy, soft or sumptuous. These beers have that quality in spades.
The actual process of making good malt is a tough thing to get people excited about. It’s technical, repetitive, and for most people (this resident malt geek is excluding himself here) ever so dull. It’s when you perhaps start to think about the agriculture behind the product, and the hard work put into making a top quality ingredient, that its overall importance in the scheme of beer becomes much more clear.
When you start to think about where the ingredients in your favourite beer come from, and how they are made, it can result in enhancing your enjoyment of the product itself. If you think about this in terms of something like wine, that agriculture and terroir is incredibly important to many people who enjoy that product. To which I say: why not beer too?
“Getting more involved with all your raw materials and where they come from gives you that much more knowledge and experience that enables your creativity,” Troubadour Maltings’ Chris Schooley says. “By having a more personal connection to the where, how and why of your raw materials it makes the end product that much more special. Meaning more unique and expressive beers!”
This is how I feel we maybe, just maybe, get people more excited about malt. While the technical side of things is interesting to an engaged few, talking about beer's sense of place is powerful stuff. This is always challenging in beer, because where wine and cider are made (typically) of one ingredient, beer is composed of at least four. But if you look at that with your optimist's hat on, that’s four times as much of a story, packed into every glass.
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