(The following column was originally published in the Waterbury Republican-American on June 13, 2012.)
By Will Siss
Microbreweries, meet micro-malt houses. I think you’re going to get along.
Up in Hadley, Mass., there’s this flat, quaint neighborhood and in the neighborhood is this big garage. Unless you were looking for it, you’d pass right by it. It used to be a barn for onion and potato processing before it stored antique cars.
Now it’s Valley Malt, a small business that has bigger implications for New England’s local beer culture. As is the trend in artisan restaurants — knowing where your food came from, and hoping it came a short distance — so goes it with a segment of progressive breweries.
Malt houses turn grain seeds into a form that brewers can use to extract sugars and combine with water, hops and yeast to make beer. Industrial malt houses cater to the behemoth breweries, but like anything in the craft world, smaller has its cachet.
It’s not cachet that Andrea and Christian Stanley, the husband and wife team who own Valley Malt, are necessarily looking for. They’re more about resurrecting a Massachusetts tradition.
“I was inspired by it, because nobody else was doing it,” said Andrea, a small, pretty woman in her 30s who was gracious enough to give a tour to me and some of my homebrewer friends on a drizzly Saturday morning.
The six of us stood, a little cramped, next to the giant steel malting vessel shaped a bit like an aircraft carrier that stood about nine feet high.
Andrea’s description of how her malt house works was comprehensive and insightful. This was clearly more than a business. Through reading books and taking courses, the part-time social worker has turned her passion for local agriculture and beer into a rewarding part-time job for two years.
Valley Malt — which will produce a tiny fragment of what a large maltster would produce — is one of a handful of micro-malt houses, which also include Rebel Malting in Nevada and River Bend Malt House in North Carolina. It plans to malt about 8,000 pounds of grain a week, once new equipment is installed.
Malting is basically a three-step process. Grain is steeped in water, then rested to bring about germination, before it is dried in a kiln.”Sometimes it’s also roasted, depending on the kind of grain, like you would for light- or dark-roasted coffee.”
After receiving grain from local farms, such as Four Star Farms in Northfield, Mass., and checking to make sure that it has the right protein levels to germinate properly, the steeping begins. We’re talking about 1,000 gallons of water for a ton of grain here. It takes two days, Andrea said. Bringing moisture to the grains wakes them up in an effort to break down proteins and expose starches.
“It’s all about time, temperature and moisture,” Andrea explained.
Germination is the growth phase for the grain, in which a root (known as the chit) emerges. This is a 3- to 5-day stage in which temperature needs to be highly regulated, along with oxygen levels. During this stage, she and Christian will shovel the malt to turn it over one or two times a day.
The final stage is about getting rid of the moisture by heating and kiln drying it. Sometimes Andrea roasts the grain (at her house) before it’s bagged and shipped off to microbreweries.
Breweries Valley Malt has distributed to include Red Hook Brewing and Smuttynose Brewing in Portsmouth, N.H., Allagash Brewing and Peak Organic Brewing in Portland, Maine, and Idle Hands Craft Ales in Everett , Mass., and Element Brewing in Millers Falls, Mass.
Dogfish Head Brewing in Delaware is one of the few out-of-New England breweries to use Valley Malt; it did so in its Noble Rot saison-style ale.
“We’re trying to keep it local,” Andrea said. “Plus, shipping a pallet of malt to Chicago is expensive.”
The fact that it’s happening on a small level is impressive, but it’s also a lot of work.
Outside of some lab technicians who test malt batches, it’s a two-person operation. Andrea said that she and her husband work about 20 hours each during a typical week, for 52 weeks a year. This is in addition to raising three children.
This isn’t a surefire venture either. Last year’s crop failures in parts of the country because of wet weather didn’t help. “Hopefully, we’ll have better harvests,” she said.
In an attempt to keep it super-local, Valley Malt is growing its own grain on 50 acres right behind the malt house.
After climbing a few steps to gain access to the bin, Andrea gave each of us a handful of sprouted spelt, a hard-grained heirloom wheat that gives mild, nutty flavors. It’s not used often, and while not gluten-free, it’s popular among those who are sensitive to gluten, Andrea said.
As we munched away and talked shop, Andrea reflected on her malt house in the suburbs, where no one minds that she drives a forklift from the grain storage down the street to her converted barn.
“Neighbors don’t mind,” she said. “They’re laid back, and there’s that agricultural tradition.”
For more information, go to www.valleymalt.com.
Until next time, sip well.
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