“Okay, you get some varieties that grow well and you grow malting grains. Then after you harvest you just sell it to the brewers/distillers? Well that can’t be too hard…right?”
Unfortunately, it is not that simple. In order to make barley into malt, there are long complex biological and chemical processes that must occur. You can’t take barley from the field and make beer out of it. Barley coming out of the field is still in its storage form. It is mainly made of complex starches. As most of you know yeast needs simple sugars in order to convert those sugars into alcohol, which is what we all want in a beer, right? Yeast cannot convert starch into alcohol so my job as a maltster is to coax the barley into thinking it is time for it to start growing. This “coaxing” is really all that malting is. Maltsters trick the barley into thinking it is the correct time of the year for it to start growing.
If barley were left to grow wild the process it would have to go through is as follows:
· Geek Version: In late summer to early Fall, the seed falls off the stalk. If it immediately starts to grow after hitting the ground, it would grow too much before winter and not survive the cold climate. This also means that it comes off the stalk in its storage form known as starch. Such starch is very hardy and will not degrade nearly as quickly as sugar will, so it would sit in a field until the time was right for it to start growing. Then, when the time is right, many complex biological and chemical changes start to occur. (The main reason for these changes is to convert the starches into a readily available form for the growing plant… Sugar!) Enzymes in the seed will activate, start degrading the cell walls, and cut the long chemical chains of starch into the short chains of the simple sugar maltose. The growing plant can use this maltose until its stalk has broken through the surface of the ground. Once the stalk has done this, it starts to produce its own sugar through photosynthesis.
· Layman’s Version: So all of the starch in the seed is basically a reserve of energy for the plant to grow long enough until it can produce its own energy.
So how does this have anything to do with malt and beer???
It has everything to do with malt and beer! We mimic this natural process in the malthouse so we can activate those enzymes that will convert the starch into sweet, tasty maltose sugar that yeast loves to eat. This yeast will eat those sugars and convert them into alcohol and CO2… BEER!
We mimic this natural occurrence in a three-step process:
Step 1: For all the Beeks (i.e., a clever name my wife gives beer geeks) like me out there, after the grain has been harvested, cleaned, and sized we put it in large steeping tanks. In these tanks the grain will be covered with water. This will allow the grain to get up to a moisture-content of around 45%. This is recreating a natural soaking from rain. There is aeration to allow oxygen to get to the grain so it doesn’t suffocate and we also drain the water periodically to allow the grain to breath. The steeping process takes around 2 days for the grain to reach its 45% moisture. At the end of this a physical change in the grain can be seen. There will be a little white point at the end of the grain; in the malting world, this small rootlet is referred to as “chitting.” You will probably hear many references to chit in the future… pun intended. Nevertheless, once the moisture level has been reached we move on to the next step.
Step 2: The wet grain is then moved to the germination floor. During this process the grain is spread out on a floor. The floor can be perforated or just concrete. Our system is a mixture of both. This allows for the slow germination that makes floor-malted malt so flavorful, but it also allows a little more air movement to prevent any mold issues. We can control the germination to mimic both types of germination. Anyway, during germination the grain must be kept at a cool temperature, around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The grain is then allowed to grow for 3-5 days. During this time the enzymes are being activated and they are starting to degrade the cell walls— gaining access to the starch inside. This is really where most of the biological and chemical changes occur. The maltster does not want the grain to grow too much. If this happens then the plant will actually start to use the sugar and that takes away from the amount of sugar available to the brewer. So when the maltster recognizes that the grain has “fully modified,” meaning the enzymes have been activated and the cell walls have been degraded and not “over modified,” meaning that the enzymes actually start converting the starch into sugars and this sugar is used up by the growing plant. It is then time to move to the final stage of malting: drying and kilning.
Step 3: After the grain has fully modified it must quickly be dried so that it does not continue to grow and over-modify. This is done in a specially designed kiln, which will dry the grain down with low temperature so as to not destroy the enzymes. After it has been dried, the temperature will be turned up to create the color and malty flavors we all love in our beer. The temperature and duration will change with this stage depending on what type of malt you are making. And this is where the art of malting comes in. You can make base malt, amber malt, brown malt, caramel malt, chocolate malt, black malt, smoked malt, make your own style malt, bubba-gump malt, shrimp malt, shrimp and potat…oh, sorry! You get the picture!
A maltster can really craft a flavor through the control of his/her kiln. After the kilning is done the malt must be debearded, which knocks off the rootlets and polishes the grain. Then it is cleaned again to remove the rootlets and any other light material. Next comes bagging the malt that is ready to make some tasty beer!!!
This three-step process takes about a week before it can be shipped to brewers, which leads us to our last hurdle we have had to jump while starting a malthouse… the EQUIPMENT!! I have listed off a lot of equipment that is needed for the malting process, but unfortunately there has been no sexy genie coming out of any lamp around here supplying this stuff!
So where are we getting all of this equipment? Is there a company that makes all of this malting equipment?
Again no, nothing can be simple for craft maltsters. We are in a similar position as craft brewers were in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Back then there were only about 100 breweries in the nation. Most of these were very large breweries with very sizeable equipment that would not work in a small craft brewery. The craft brewers had to find a way to get brewing equipment for smaller batches. Luckily they were and still are able to get much of their equipment from Europe, mainly Germany. Craft maltsters share similar struggles, but seem even worse off.
Currently 80% of all malt produced in the world comes from only 10 companies; these are massive corporations with multiple malthouses in each company. The other 20% are other large companies predominately in Europe; some of these could be considered craft malthouses. In North America though, maybe .01% of the beer made is from a North American Craft Maltser and that guess is running on the high side. Five years ago there was one craft malthouse in North America. Last year there were only a dozen extremely small craft malthouses. These are producing maybe 2-3 tons a week. However, there should be around 40 craft malthouses producing malt by this time next year in North America, at least. We are small but growing, while struggling to find equipment. There aren’t any companies that make economical small scale malting equipment. Trust us! We have looked! There are some very small systems in Germany and China, but to get them made and shipped here is not feasible. The only way for a craft maltster to get equipment is to either retrofit equipment from other industries or design and custom build equipment. We are doing both.
For example, our steep tank is a 1,000-gallon stainless steel conical bottom tank that was originally used in a corn syrup refinery. Our kiln on the other hand is a one of a kind kiln. The dryer is specially designed for us and the kiln box is also specially designed and built for us. It has not been easy to get what equipment we need to make quality craft malt.
So in all it has been extremely difficult to start this business. There have been many mountains we have had to climb, many hurdles we have had to jump, but we have done all of them. I am sure there will be many more, but we are excited for the new challenges as they come our way!
As for now, Sugar Creek Malt Company is close to producing our first batch of malt! Only a couple of months away! We hope you are as excited as we are!