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No malt, no beer

May/June 2019 California Bountiful magazine

Farmers grow grain for product called the heart and soul of a good pint


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Ron Silberstein, cofounder of Admiral Maltings, examines kernels of barley, the most common cereal grain used to make malt, an essential ingredient in beer-making. Photo: © 2019 Lori Eanes

Craft-beer lovers new to The Rake in Alameda may go there initially to check out the various selections on tap, but they won't be able to miss the pub's giant windows overlooking the facility next door making what cofounder Ron Silberstein calls the "heart and soul of a good pint": malt.

"Most people have no idea what malt is—or its contribution to beer," he said. "I always have to explain: no malt, no beer—that malt is to beer what grapes are to wine."

Making beer begins with malt, which is made using cereal grain that's been germinated and dried. And yes, this is the same malt used in malted milkshakes, chocolate malt balls and malt whiskey. In beer-making, barley is the grain most commonly used, although a variety of other grains also are used, including wheat, corn, rice, rye and oats. Grains—like grapes in wine—provide the sugars needed in the fermentation process to make alcohol.

As a brewer, Silberstein said he had long wanted to use locally produced malt to brew his beers. After all, his brewery-restaurant, Thirsty Bear Brewing Co. in San Francisco, already buys most of its ingredients from local farms.

With the rise in popularity of craft beer and the rapid growth of microbreweries in the state, he and cofounders Dave McLean and Curtis Davenport saw an opportunity to start their own malting business, with the hope that it would "give some rebirth to the farmers willing to grow malting-quality barley," Silberstein said.


Patrons of The Rake enjoy craft beers made with malt produced at Admiral Maltings, located next door to the pub. Photo: © 2019 Lori Eanes

The missing link

When it opened in 2017, Admiral Maltings became the first commercial malt house to operate in California in decades. With The Rake right next door, the 20,000-square-foot facility joins a nearby cluster of artisan breweries, distilleries, tasting rooms and restaurants at Alameda Point, a former naval air station that's now a destination for tourists and local patrons. Though its production is small compared to large malt houses in other states, Admiral supplies malt to more than 190 California breweries and distilleries, with expansion underway.

Like Silberstein, McLean—himself a longtime Bay Area brewer who operated two breweries and two restaurants—said he found it frustrating that even with the state's robust local food movement, finding local ingredients to make beer remained difficult.

"It's like the epic blind spot—a missing link. How could there not be local barley?" he said. "Of course, you can't have local barley and brew with it unless you have somebody that malts it—and that's what we do."

By giving customers a full view of how malting is done, McLean said he intends to show people something unusual and educational that would highlight malt as "the foundation of beer."

"Part of our decision to locate Admiral where we did is to bring it closer to brewers and the public, so they could learn a little bit about malt," he said. "We wanted to do our part to change the wider story and to connect people to the story of malt."


Before his retirement, University of California, Davis, barley breeder Lynn Gallagher devoted decades of research to the grain. Photo: Ching Lee

Malting barley stages a comeback

The story of malt begins with barley, once a widely grown field crop in California, with production peaking at more than 2 million acres in the 1950s. After the state's last malt house closed its doors decades ago and farmers switched to growing more fruits and nuts, interest in barley waned, with most now grown for livestock feed. Today, with annual acreage at around 60,000, barley is not exactly a rock star in California agriculture, but there was always hope it would make a comeback.

"The malt house was a missing key," said Lynn Gallagher, a retired University of California, Davis, barley breeder. "That being absent, there was nobody who would grow (malting) barley, because there was no end user. Now, there's an end user."

Gallagher spent more than 25 years trying to bring malting barley back to the state by breeding a barley variety with characteristics that maltsters and brewers desire—and one that's suitable for the state's growing conditions, with good yield and disease resistance, so that farmers would want to grow it.

Until Admiral Maltings came along, his barley sat on the shelf for nearly 10 years with not much interest. These days, his barley can be found growing in the Sacramento Valley. Yolo County farmer Fritz Durst is one of several California farmers growing malting barley for Admiral, which pays him a premium compared to what he could earn growing barley for feed.

"It's actually a renaissance for our region, which used to be world-renowned for its malting barley," Durst said.


Admiral Maltings' head maltster Curtis Davenport uses a rake to turn the barley by hand during the germinating process, a key step in making malt. Photo: © 2019 Lori Eanes

Turning barley into malt

As customers enjoy The Rake's range of beers from breweries using Admiral malts, they can see head maltster Curtis Davenport turning barley into malt. People most often think he's working with hops, Silberstein said, but what they're witnessing is "an ancient, traditional method of making malt" known as floor malting.

"Most people have no idea what they are looking at and are fascinated by the spectacle," he added.

Very simply, beer is a fermented malt beverage made by extracting the sugars in the grains so that they can be turned into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Because the starch in the barley is not ready to be fermented into alcohol, it must be malted first.

Malting begins with soaking the barley in water, which encourages the grain to sprout. The wet barley is then spread on the floor, where the germinating grain is turned with a rake (hence the bar's name) during several days. This creates the enzymes needed to break down the sugars in the barley that the brewer will later use in the fermentation process to make beer. After allowing the barley to germinate, the grain is moved to a kiln to dry, which halts germination—and adds color, flavor and stability to the malt.

Though floor malting is more labor- and space-intensive than modern mechanized methods, Silberstein said the technique is gentler for the germinating barley and retains unique flavor characteristics.

For patrons of The Rake, coming in and seeing malt being made is usually a surprise, McLean said, as "it's the only thing like it that they've ever seen." Not only are they captivated, he said, but they're full of questions.

"Even our brewing customers express a lot excitement for being able to see the process and having it so on display at The Rake," he added. "In a lot of cases, we're the first malt house they've been to, even though they're professional brewers, because we're the first to come along in a long time."

The Rake serves only beer made with Admiral malts, which are listed on the menu. It provides samples of the different malts for patrons to try. As they look through the menu and read about the beers they're drinking, they can chew on barley kernels and taste the malt that's in their beer. Admiral also includes a full description of its malts, with information about the kind of barley used, where it was grown, who grew it and the farming methods used to produce it.

"We do what we can to connect all the dots," McLean said.

Ching Lee

The basics of beer-making

If malt is the foundation of beer, what are the other main ingredients that go into brewing? 

     

It may be obvious, but water is a big one, accounting for more than 90 percent of beer's content.

Yeast—the same stuff used in baking—converts the sugars in the malt into carbon dioxide and alcohol.

Hops are the green, cone-shaped flowers of the Humulus lupulus plant and what brewer Ron Silberstein calls "the spice" in beer. They give beer bitterness, aroma and flavor. Like barley, hops are also making a comeback in California, with local farmers growing the crop for breweries.


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