(Note: This is a modified version of a piece I wrote for the Stormcloud Brewing Co. mug club members.)
“Malz ist die Seele des Bieres” – translated from German as “Malt is the soul of beer.” Without malted barley, which provides fermentable sugars that lead to the production of alcohol, we would have no beer. To take it a step farther – without maltsters, we’d have no malt! In this post, I’d like to focus on a group of people essential to the brewing process: maltsters.
Before we dive into the world of maltsters, I wanted to give you a quick refresher on malt. Malt is one of the four key ingredients in nearly all beer, the others being water, hops, and yeast. Most brewing malt is made from barley and wheat, though other grains like oats and rye can also be malted. According to Thomas Kraus-Weyermann of Weyermann Specialty Malts, “malt varieties range from very pale and sweet to amber and biscuit-like to almost black and coffee-like.”² This range of malt varieties accounts for not only the different amounts of sugar turned to alcohol, but also the different colors, flavors, and mouthfeel of beer.
The reason brewers use malt is because the raw barley kernels are rock hard, which makes the carbohydrates needed for brewing inaccessible. These carbohydrates are “protected by a matrix of protein surrounded by rigid cell walls.”¹ The malting process liberates these starches from the barley, so it can be used in making beer.
The very first step in the brewing process is milling (grinding) the malt for the brew. Once it is ground, the malt is now called grist. The next step in the brewing process is forming mash by mixing water with crushed malt. In the mash is where brewers want to convert malt starch into sugars, which later in the brewing process yeast will turn into alcohol.
As you may have guessed, a maltster is the person who turns barley into malt. All About Beer Magazine explains, “From barley selection to malting control, it is the maltster who determines the foundational quality of a beer.”³ The malting process has three primary phases: steeping, germination, and kilning. During steeping, the maltster submerges barley in water on and off for two to three days. The hydration of the grain (with intermittent periods of aeration) initiates a reaction that will start the growth of a new barley plant inside the kernel. During germination, the maltster removes the barley from the steeping water, and keeps it moist for three to five days, allowing the barley seed to begin growing.¹ The kernel produces little rootlets, called chit. Sprowt Labs explains the importance of chit, saying, “maltsters use lab analysis after malting to ensure quality, but, as a big or small malthouse, they rely on chit counts and other sensory analysis during malting.”⁴ The final phase in malting is kilning, where the sprouted kernel is loaded on to the perforated floor of a kiln, and fans drive heated air through the floor. First the fans blow warm air to remove grain moisture, and then fan air temperatures vary, depending on what type of flavors are desired in the finished malt.
The art of making malt has been around for thousands of years.⁵ Though some form of malt existed before recorded history, there is a legend that early Egyptians were creating malt by lowering baskets of grain into wells to steep, then raising it above the water to germinate, and drying it out in the sun.⁶ Throughout history, the making and selling of malt was often tightly controlled, “in Nurnberg in 1290 only barley was allowed to be malted, while in Augsberg between 1433 and 1550 beer was only to be made from malted oats. In England malt carried a tax for many years until 1880.”⁷ By the 17th century, beer was predominantly brewed with malted barley, and it was done on the tiled floor of a large kiln – and maltsters had to constantly be turning it with wooden shovels. The modern malting tools we know today (such as aerated boxes) were first introduced in the late 19th century.
Just like there are craft breweries, there are also craft maltsters!
The Craft Maltsters Guild states that, “craft products deserve craft ingredients. While there’s a lot of good malt out there, the majority of it comes from big businesses with production volumes that dwarf all but the largest craft beer and spirits brands. With craft malt, malt buyers can now see eye-to-eye with malt producers. And it turns out that when these folks are seeing eye-to-eye, great things happen.”⁸
Meet Alison Babb, owner of Empire Malting Co. She is located in Empire, MI, cultivating her product less than two miles from Lake Michigan and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a location which she greatly credits for the terroir of her malt. This area is known by locals as ‘Beer Valley’ due to the abundance of hops and barley grown there. Empire Malting is the only malthouse in Michigan that grows their own barley onsite, and is one of the few in the nation.
In addition to being a fierce farmer and maltster, Alison is also an accomplished artist. She paints and designs all of the labels on her malt that goes into the market.
Here at Stormcloud Brewing, we are incredibly proud of investing in local ingredients, both malt and hops. Nearly every single Stormcloud beer contains Alison’s malt, and it definitely plays a role in the high-quality flavor we come to expect in our brews.
During 2019’s Frankfort Beer Week, we had the opportunity to host Alison at our tasting room where she gave an informative presentation about the malting process and her experience in the industry. Our brewers crafted four different small batch beers, each designed to highlight a different variety of her malt. Her knowledge is unparalleled, and having the opportunity to talk to her was a real treat.
¹ Daniels, Ray, et al. Brewing Ingredients & Process Course. 2nd ed., Chicago, Cicerone® Certification Program, 2018, pp. 10-15. Road to Cicerone®.
² Oliver, Garrett, editor. “Malt.” The Oxford Companion to Beer. 1 ed., Oxford University Press, 2012.
³ Bolden, Erika. “Crafting Quality: It Starts With Malt.” All About Beer Magazine, 18 Dec. 2015, allaboutbeer.com/quality-starts-with-malt/.
⁴ Abbott, Christopher. “The Chit #01: Barley Chit.” Sprowt Labs, Sprowt Labs, 27 July 2017, sprowtlabs.com/2017/07/27/the-chit-01-barley-chit.
⁵ “The Maltster: How an art that’s thousands of years old is once again gaining recognition.” Country Living, edited by Toby Keel, TI Media Limited, Apr. 2018, countrylife.co.uk/food-drink/maltster-dying-art-thats-thousands-years-old-gaining-recognised-175878.
⁶ “History of malting.” ProBrewer, RealBeer Media, probrewer.com/library/malt/history-of-malting/.
⁷ “History of the Malting Process.” Great Western Malting, GrainCorp Malt Group, greatwesternmalting.com/process/history-of-the-malting-process/
⁸ “Who are we?” Craft Maltsters Guild, craftmalting.com/guild/about-us/.