Friday, January 20, 2017
In a small facility in western Massachusetts, Andrea Stanley is doing everything she can to come up with varieties of small-batch malt that are going to differentiate the small-batch brewers who use them. Sometimes that involves dipping back into brewing history to revitalize brown porter malt. And sometimes that means going where no one thought beer makers would want to go — like soaking malt for two weeks in a crock pot with kimchi to invent a whole new flavor.
What Stanley, owner of Valley Malt, and a small number of other craft maltsters — there are 44 operating in the United States now, with 26 more malt houses under construction — are doing is taking back an industry sector that largely is in the hands of big corporations. Craft maltsters produced just 0.4 percent of the supply in North America in 2016. Then again, that's about the percentage of American beer that craft brewers were making in the early 1980s as well.
And while big malt houses will churn out exciting products every once in a while, they are not coming up with the Kvaas malt or bourbon-barrel-smoked malt that Stanley is. And most are not offering single-variety malts like Colorado Malting Company of Alamosa, experimenting with the flavors that a lone crop can give to a beer.
"This is the way that things are moving," said Chad Yakobson, the founder of Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project who recently worked with Casey Brewing and Blending to make two versions of their Von Pilsner with two different malts and produced strikingly different flavors. "Malt is beer ... So, without it, what do we have?"
Stanley, Yakobson and others gathered at the recent Big Beers, Belgians and Barleywines Festival in Breckenridge for a panel discussion on experiments with local malt. The talk was eye-opening in regard to the possibilities of flavors not yet achieved by American brewers through the use of new varieties of one of the four main ingredients (with water, hops and yeast) that go into a beer.
Jason Cody, president and CEO of Colorado Malting Co., explained that he worked with the ever-experimental Three Barrel Brewing to make three varieties of the same ale, each with their own strain of single-variety malt — unusual in an industry that relies heavily on blended malt. And the samples of the beers they poured at the seminar were wholly unique - one light and jasmine-tinted, one traditionally earthy and a third almost flowery.
"This was a huge eye-opener for me," said Will Kreutzer, brewer and manager of the Del Norte beer maker, who works closely with father-in-law owner John Bricker (both pictured with Cody, above).
Yakobson's two Von Pilsners — one with Weyermann Pilsner malts and the other with Leopold Brothers floor-malted barley — also felt like different beers. Weyermann malts made the beer feel exceptionally clean and seemed to accent an airy quality, while the Leopold Brothers malt gave its offering qualities that were sweeter and somewhat chewy.
Stanley didn't bring beer samples but presented the malts almost as a breakfast supplement. (This, after all, was the 9:30 a.m. seminar on Saturday of the festival.) And while the kimchi malt was the most vibrant and palate-startling of the bunch — even if it would be difficult to pinpoint exactly what style of beer would benefit from its characteristics — varieties like the Kvaas malt, made from rye, gave hints of the bready, almost historical flavors that could be brought out with such new efforts.
"Are we going to transition all of our beer to be flavored with kimchi malt? The answer is obviously 'no,'" said John Mallett, the director of operations for Bell's Brewery who was presenting with Stanley. "But I love that malts like that are being made."
Craft brewers have used hops, yeast and additive ingredients to create new flavors and whole new styles of beer over the past 25 years. So, it's wonderful to see that by tweaking what is arguably the most staid of beer's primary ingredients, they may be about to push the flavor profile of this traditional beverage that much further.