Just as, a decade ago, you would seldom have seen restaurants presenting canned beer with pride, few beer drinkers (or even brewers) put much thought or effort into the provenance of their malt. It’s becoming common for people to grasp the distinctions between hops strains, such as Cascade or Simcoe — but if a familiarity with hops is like being conversant about film directors, then malt would be more like directors of photography. It’s one step deeper into the bottomless abyss of beer-nerd culture.
And until recently, only a few big suppliers furnished all the malted barley for American breweries, large and small. So much attention has been lavished on hops and yeast — which, with water, are essentially beer’s only other ingredients — that the revival of traditional malting practices almost feels overdue.
To remedy this, Alameda’s Admiral Maltings is set to open a sizeable modern facility in a former naval warehouse that will marry “floor-malting” — the method most brewers prize — with modern equipment. Founders Curtis Davenport, Ron Silberstein (of ThirstyBear Organic Brewery), and Dave McLean (of Magnolia Brewing) represent a troika of industry know-how and experience, and they’re nearly set to deliver the two harvests’ worth of Sacramento Valley barley they’d accumulated while building out Admiral Maltings.
“I was the only person in California who I know of that was malting grain,” Davenport says as we walk through the space, the sound of his voice occasionally drowned out by workmen installing the final machines. “It still blows my mind that I ended up being the ‘barley and malt’ guy.”
An organic farmer near Santa Ynez who’d initially conceived the idea of an “estate brewery” — which is to say, one that grew all its barley and hops and brewed its beer on-site — Davenport realized that the barley has to be malted before anyone can use it. He checked out what other malting operations were doing, and realized he could do it, too, breathing life into an auxiliary industry that had been weakened by Prohibition and rendered nearly extinct by industry consolidation. Barley is the first grain humans learned to cultivate, and malt companies used to be everywhere that breweries were, Davenport says. He cites the beautiful, 110-year-old Jackson Brewing Company, a brick complex at the southwest corner of 11th and Folsom streets that was a malting company at one time.
By the 1980s, Davenport says, “You ended up with a handful of styles of beer, all being made with the exact same malt from three big malt companies. Even with the craft-beer revolution, that’s where malting was a few years ago.”
In 2011, he joined the Craft Maltsters Guild, which had six members then (and more than 100 today). Larger microbreweries such as Sierra Nevada took an interest, and meanwhile, research labs at Oregon State University and elsewhere took up the laborious, decades-long pursuit of selecting barley strains for the tastes and standards associated with craft beer — as opposed to, say, Bud Light.
“There’s not even standardized ways of talking about barley flavor,” says Davenport, whose official title is Head Maltster. “There’s some good sensory analysis for malt, but to choose a barley based on the way the beer is going to taste was unheard of. That work is just now happening.”
This holds a lot of promise. If Admiral Maltings and other small-scale malt companies proliferate, they have the potential to give craft beer a boost, untethering the industry’s last rope that connects it to the industrial practices of the postwar era, when “Tastes great” and “Less filling” fought a Manichean battle that squeezed out all other aesthetic criteria.
While there’s a lot of finesse involved, malting is not a painfully complicated process. Steeping the barley seeds in warm water converts the starches to simple sugars, and tons of them get aerated on wet and dry cycles in huge augers to ensure even hydration. The dormant seeds begin to grow, and they’re spread on a floor — hence “floor-malting”— that’s kept at 60 degrees to channel their development in ways that yield the right flavor profiles. They’re raked to prevent the rootletsBefore proper germination sets in, they’re conveyed into a kiln to remove all but three percent of the water content, and the temperature at which they’re dried dictates what kind of beer they’ll be used for. You can keep the malt light for a pilsner, or roast it almost as you would with coffee beans, to get it dark.
“It’s just exploiting what a plant would do,” Davenport says, noting that it can smell “like someone’s cutting cucumbers.”
“Brewers and distillers always have reverence for floor-malted grain,” he adds.
Malted barley has some other uses — in traditional porridges like samanak or mämmi, as malted vinegar, in Whoppers and other malted milk balls — but it’s overwhelmingly used in brewing and distilling. So will Admiral Maltings brew its own beer?
Yes, McLean says, musing that “it’s interesting after all these years of being a brewer, to swim upstream, up the supply chain.”
He continues: “In the end, the goal is to get back to the beer part.”
Alameda is in the middle of a fermentation boom, with Faction Brewing located a short distance to the west, not far from St. George Spirits and Hangar One. San Francisco’s Almanac Beer Co., which has been a “gypsy” brewery throughout its history, is set to open its first production facility next door to Admiral Maltings.
Separate from the malthouse proper is an area that will become a gastropub sometime in the fall. It’s on a different timeline from the rest of Admiral Maltings, because it will only serve beer brewed with the house malt — although not necessarily brewed in-house to start — and that malt will only go out when the principals are satisfied that they’ve done it right.
“Maybe we’ll nail it on our first batch,” Davenport says.
Admiral Maltings, 651 West Tower Ave., Alameda, admiralmaltings.com