By David Ackley
As reported by the New York Times just last week, small-scale, artisanal malting facilities have started to pop up around the United States. A direct off-shoot of the craft beer explosion of recent years, these malt houses are capitalizing on a surging interest in locally-produced ingredients. Passing through Asheville, NC, I met up with Brent Manning and Brian Simpson of Riverbend Malt House, a fairly young company producing hand-made, artisan malts from locally-grown barley, rye, and wheat. Not only is Riverbend working with local farmers to source their grains, they are resurrecting traditional floor-malting techniques and are dedicated to creating a sustainable business and using as much organic and non-GMO ingredients as possible.
Riverbend Malt House is well-situated in Asheville, with 15 breweries and brewpubs in the area and more on the way. Add to that the fact that Asheville has either shared or won outright the title of Beer City USA for the past four years. It’s the city with the most breweries in the U.S. per capita and the future home of three big-time operations from the West Coast. (Asheville also happens to be the place that first inspired me to get into homebrewing a good three years ago.) Being a craft beer locavore, I was interested to see how Brent and Brian had come into this line of work and learn a little about a day in the life of a maltster.
Native North Carolinians Brian Simpson and Brent Manning are the brains behind the operation. They were consultants in their former lives, and saw a niche that needed filling. With most breweries around the world getting their malt from just a handful of producers, these guys took a leap of faith and seized the opportunity. Two years later, demand for locally-produced ingredients has skyrocketed, leaving these two entrepreneurs well-positioned to cash in on the pending boom in Asheville.
To prepare for their venture, Brian and Brent studied at the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre, a non-profit dedicated to providing technical assistance to the malting and brewing industries. It was something of a crash course in malting, cramming a Bachelor’s degree worth of knowledge into about three 50-hour weeks. They also studied extensively on their own and worked with a local metal-worker to construct an old-school malt rake from 19th-century drawings.
Brian and Brent showed me around their facility, a former grocery distribution center, and walked me through the three-step malting process:
Grains (barley, wheat, or rye) are steeped in water. The water is replaced up to three times to trigger germination. Once sprouts start to show, the grains are moved to the floor for…
The sprouted grains are spread out on the floor, where they are turned by hand using a rake, every six to eight hours for three or four days. By measuring the length of the ‘acrospire,’ you can tells how well-modified the grain is, i.e., when it’s time to stop the germination and move to…
The grain is put in a kiln to stop the germination process, thereby preserving the grain’s enzymes and sugars for use in making beer. If you don’t stop the germination, that energy would be used to turn that barley kernel into a plant.
Brian and Brent produce a few heritage malts, including a soft red wheat, more robust in flavor than more common varieties, and a species of rye that’s been grown in North Carolina since the Civil War. They’re on track to produce 150-175 tons a year, but that number is sure to increase as more and more breweries use their malts.
I was struck by how well Brent and Brian were able to balance the old and the new. They’ve clearly become experts in their field and are pushing the envelope on what the malting industry can be, but simultaneously harking back to tradition. I can imagine Belgian monks or early American settlers making barley malt in basically the same way.
I asked these brothers (not really brothers, but pretty damn close), how it felt to leave their jobs and dive into a craft such as this one. They acknowledge it was extremely gratifying, and it was easy to tell from their enthusiasm that it was true. I look forward to following their successes, as each of them balance starting a business with starting families.
I’d like to encourage everyone reading this to get to know food and beverage producers in your area. Not just brewers, maltsters, and hop growers, but also farmers, bakers, and butchers. These are the people who will be creating jobs and putting money into your local community. Get your hands in their malt (or whatever it is they make) and smell it, feel it, taste it. Support their businesses.
David Ackley is the founder of the Local Beer Blog.