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Welcome to the Malt House!

Every beer fanatic knows that that the German beer purity law (the “Reinheitsgebot”) of 1516 says beer can only be made of three ingredients – Water, Hops and Barley. (They didn’t know what yeast was – it was just the “gift of the Gods” until old Lou Pasteur isolated it in 1866). To most craft beer appreciators, we care about the styles, hops and alcohol levels and aroma – and we do know that barley is the grain that creates the sugars that ferment into alcohol. But what a lot of us don’t know is that malted barley grains (“malt”) are really the very soul of every beer, and its handling and processing really does make the beer what it is.

I was fortunate enough to tag along with Matt Farber’s University of the Sciences Brewing Certificate class on a field trip to the Deer Creek Malt House last week, and had the pleasure of sharing a guided tour through the wonders of malting. “It’s as much an art as a science” commented Mark Brault – the founder of the Deer Creek Malthouse, located in Malvern Pa.

Malting is the process of creating “modified grain” that is used in a number of drink and foodstuffs – from brewing to distilling and even baking. From a brewing perspective, to put it succinctly, to create alcohol the yeast needs sugar – and to get sugar from grain you need to “fool it” into thinking that it is about to grow, then “kill it” by toasting it dry. You see, grain won’t give up it’s starches easily, it waits until it starts to grow from the seed (kernel) and then it makes the starches accessible as food for it’s own growth. It’s that germinated or malted grain that is what you need to make most all beer.

But there’s so much more than that – as beer is a very complex beverage. Brewers have learned over the centuries that managing, watering, germinating, and kilning (toasting) the grain is a process that when managed properly defines the potential taste, color, alcohol content and body of the beer.

Deer Creek Owner Mark Brault

Mark started Deer Creek in 2012 because there was simply no malting operation in the Mid-Atlantic US since prohibition. That “great experiment” shut down the malting industry in the East, driving the maltsters back to where the grain is grown – mostly the midwest of America. He started his business by experimenting with some 70 types of grain to see if it would grow well in the Pennsylvania region. Eventually he was able to source grain from local farmers willing to grow barley as a cash crop. Back then he had to do a lot of education and training of the farmers about how to manage the crop – everything from the use of pesticides to threshing techniques. (Now local universities like the Penn State Extension Service can do that education). “When we started, it was very hands on” Mark explained.

There is so much to know about the details of the malting process and the different twists and turns that I can’t start to explain it all in this post – so I will try to hit the high points:

Mark and the folks at Deer Creek source their grains from farmers in surrounding states, and test the grain for quality, levels of protein, and other chemicals to see if it can meet their standards. For example, if there is too much protein in the grain it can create off flavors in the malting process, if there is too little the grain won’t sprout. If it doesn’t sprout, there’s no malt.

Once the grain is brought to the malt house it is put through a series of screens to take out the larger unwanted things (sticks, stones, etc.) and the smaller stuff- bugs and the like – as after all, grain  coming out of the fields is pretty dirty.

Next water is added to the grain in a large kettle and then it is soaked (“steeped”) in water and drained several times in batches to start “bringing the grain back to life”. After this process is completed, the grain is eventually taken and spread out on a large, cool stone floor to let the magic happen. And magic it is, as the grains start to “respire” – ingesting oxygen and putting out heat and CO2 as their germination process starts to happen. For Deer Creek their capacity is restricted by their floor space, which restricts their batches to a maximum of 3,600 pounds of grain at a time.

3000 pounds of barley germinating on the malt floor

The grain has to be painstakingly turned with rakes every 6 – 8 hours so it can respire evenly on the floor. The heat of the germination can dry out the grain at the top of the pile, so it needs to be repeatedly mixed together. This goes on for 4 or more days until the grains start to sprout. When the sprouting starts, it’s time to stop the process while there are still plenty of starches and enzymes ready to use for brewing. Then, again – in a careful manual process, the germinated grain is placed into a special large kiln for toasting – in Deer Creek’s case it looks like a small train car with a false bottom (like a screen) in which the wet grain is spread out and carefully heated.

Mark showing the first sprouting from the germinating barley

The kilning protocol is the most secretive part of the process. The actual amount of airflow and level of heat is adjusted three times in the process, in most cases never going over 200 degrees. The details are not shared. Kilning can take several days, and the precise time and method depends on the type of beer it will be used to make.

The modified barley can be lightly toasted for a delicate pilsner malt or robustly toasted to create the coffee and chocolate flavors of dark Munich malt – usually used for stouts and porters. But there can be a toll on the grain, as the darker roasted grains lose much of their protein in the roasting process – but that process – like toasting bread or grilling meat – creates wonderful roasty flavors. Mark would not reveal precisely how long he heats and toasts the malts – “I am the only one the kilns the grain” has stated matter of factually.

Only Mark knows the secret kilning protocol for Deer Creek

Now Deer Creek in not just about beer anymore, they are experimenting with “barley teas” that taste like tea and coffee – but with no caffeine (or alcohol) and with a refreshing smooth taste. They have worked with Shane’s Confectionery in Philadelphia to create a seasonal candy bar with crispy roasted malts added to their tasty treat. I plan to try and find their granola at the local Farmers Markets that Deer Creek works with. Beer may not be just for breakfast any more, but grains sure can be.

And they work with much more than just barley grain at Deer Creek – they work with grains like oats, wheat, rye and corn, and even more exotic grains like sorghum, spelt, and buckwheat. Mark said that these specialty grains were kept in stock and are almost always available. And of course they do also smoke their grain – including cherry smoked malt an other more exotic flavorings.

Some Cherry Smoked Malt Ready for the Mash Tun

So, maybe it’s not as sexy as the hops, or as cool as exotic yeasts, but the malt really is the soul of the beer – it makes the beer what it is. And the care and craftsmanship of the maltster is a very important part of what you like to drink. Having a local maltster assists the local farmers and economy, and reduces the carbon foot print from shipping malt to the east coast from the midwest. And it helps create and support a local community of brewers, bakers and distillers who create the products that we get to enjoy.

Congrats to Deer Creek, Mark and his staff for bringing malt back to the mid Atlantic. Cheers to the local maltsters!