To review the last blog about farming malting grains there are many obstacles we, Sugar Creek Malt Company, are trying to overcome in order to have local malt. Basically we have to breed varieties specifically for our local climate. These varieties will offer farmers a good yield in the field by lowering disease issues. If we can overcome these diseases then farmers will be more willing to switch some of their acreage to barley; In recent weeks, I have been corresponding with a plant breeder, from Ohio State University, who is currently working on this initiative. He has been running a barley-breeding program to develop varieties that are specific to our climate in the Midwest. We are excited to have some new varieties in the next few years!
“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!
In this year alone our state is expected to double its amount of breweries. For this reason, among others, I am starting a craft malthouse in Indiana using locally grown small grains. Great idea, right? I think so. With the craft beer industry on the rise, it seems that Hoosiers simply can’t get enough. Likewise, as a growing trend, many customers who enjoy the craft beers want to know where the food and beverage ingredients come from and how they are handled. This is where Sugar Creek Malt Co. comes in.
Craft brewers and home brewers love to experiment and play with new kinds of malts, and most of them are willing to pay more for a malt that has been grown locally, which allows them to not only know the maltster, but also the farmer and what field their malt comes from. So why are there not dozens of craft maltsters in the state?!?!?!?!
I will give you three reasons spread out over 2 blogs. Sorry if they are lengthy. There are just many things that need to be discussed to understand the issues an Indiana maltster faces.
Mountain 1: What do you need to make the majority of malt used in breweries?
Easy answer, right? Grow some barley. Well Sugar Creek Malt has figured out that is easier said than done. My family has been farming in Indiana for generations. We know the ins and outs of grains that are grown in our state. The problem is that barley has not been grown in our state for many decades. In Indiana there are 3 grains— really 2 grains. Corn and soybeans are the main two crops, beating out wheat by a wide margin. If you were to ask a farmer in Indiana if he would grow barley, let alone malt-quality barley, that farmer will look at you like you are crazy.
So why is there no barley grown in Indiana now? I had to go all the way to Fargo, North Dakota to get to the bottom of this question. I have spent this week at North Dakota State University attending a barley field course. There I was able to learn everything from the history of the barley market to current barley growing practices.
Historically, barley was the second plant to be domesticated. Ever. This happened at the beginning of civilization around 10,000 BC in present day Iraq. Side note, there are historians that believe that agriculture, which then led to the written language, civilization, medicine, technology, pretty much everything we have today, was actually because ancient people wanted more barley to make more beer! Think about that. No barley = No beer = No Agriculture = No Civilization = You and me out hunting and gathering still today. Crazy. Anyway, barley is found in the wild and was first domesticated in a fairly dry area. Our current varieties still do not like wet humid climates. Therefore Indiana is not the best climate to raise barley in. However, this does not mean it can’t be done.
There are two types of barley: Feed barley, grown to feed livestock, and malting barley, grown to make into malt and eventually beer. The barley that used to be grown in Indiana was primarily, if not completely feed grade barley. Malt grade barley must be lower in protein, lower in beta glucagon, managed in the field extremely carefully, and harvested and stored extremely carefully. Our present day corn and soybeans really are quite easy to grow. Some North Dakota barley growers may say they are “idiot proof.” So with higher prices for corn and soybeans and government subsidies for corn and soybeans, the few farmers in Indiana that grew feed barley and wheat changed to only corn and soybeans. Also 80% of all barley grown currently is malt barley. Because corn and soybeans are so available, nobody needs barley to feed to animals. Therefore all of the barley grown in our nation, which is not much in the grand scheme of things, is grown in North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho; Ironically, it's primarily malting barley. Because of this all of the research that has gone in to variety selection for barley has made barley grow really well in North Dakota, Montana, and Idaho…, but not so great in Indiana. Fantastic.
So here are our problems and how we are overcoming them
1. Indiana is not the easiest climate to grow barley in. It’s not impossible, but it’s definitely not as easy as corn and soybeans.
We have to scout our fields at least a year in advance to understand the soil type and pick our best fields that barley will grow in. We also have to spend more time in our barley fields observing how the crop is growing and managing any problems that may occur. This can be very time consuming, much more than that with corn/soybeans.
2. Farmers in Indiana have completely lost all of the knowledge of how to grow barley.
We have to act as educators and teach the common practices that must be followed in order to grow a high quality malting barley in Indiana. We must spend the time to learn these practices ourselves and then spend even more time educating the farmers as well.
3. The current barley varieties have been bred for the northern states, none for Indiana.
Sugar Creek Malt Co. is conducting a variety field trial next spring. This will allow us to test 15-30 heritage varieties, current varieties, and even experimental varieties not yet released to farmers. This will allow us to choose the best varieties for our climate. This will take a large amount of time and planning.
So although there are many issues that we are trying to overcome just in the growing process of malting barley Sugar Creek Malt Co. is extremely excited to tackle these hurdles and bring malting barley to Indiana and Indiana brewers.
Check back in for the next mountain we are climbing.