In Southern California we proudly “drink local.” Having a favorite brewery in your community is part of your identity as a craft beer consumer. But the beer you are drinking is not as local as you think; domestic base malt is grown and malted almost entirely in the northern and middle United States. Thanks to the entrepreneurial efforts of craft maltsters, however, this is changing for the first time since the craft beer movement began.
California Malting Co.
California Malting Co. is a new craft malting operation in Santa Barbara County. Curtis Davenport – farmer and micro-maltster – oversees his 2014 planting of 2-row barley on fifty acres, sharing land with vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley. Davenport is at the forefront of a changing industry. He expects to yield about two tons per acre from his current crop, which he will harvest in July or August of 2014. West Coaster recently put him in touch with Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks operation, and he’ll soon provide them malt for a small-batch collaboration with local homebrewers utilizing wild yeast from the area. Last year, Davenport successfully sold his first viable load to Telegraph Brewing Co. in Santa Barbara and to two microbreweries opening in Goleta and Carpinteria. To malt his 2013 barley, he leased a kiln from Rebel Malting Co. in Reno, Nevada and repurposed a shipping container into a traditional floor malting system.
While Davenport hopes to increase California Malting Co.’s yield and malting capacity to the point where he can provision a regional craft brewery, which would require about 500 tons, malting is only one aspect of Davenport’s vision. “I’m most interested in connecting farmers who want to grow heirloom grain with brewers who can preserve the identity of the grain,” said Davenport. “With the current state of the industry, this is impossible.” No infrastructure is in place to turn a regional farm’s barley into malt for a craft brewery, and giant malting facilities could never process such a customized load.
Davenport’s agricultural concerns dovetail with this opportunity to supply a niche market. “I come from a farming perspective over brewing. The initial motivation for California Malting Co. was to promote the agricultural benefits of grain crops. Barley is a ‘dryland crop’ that needs little to no irrigation in an average year, so it can be well-suited to California. But I also want farmers to see the benefit of rotating crops. For example, if you take acreage of vegetables out of production for the entire year and rotate in a grass like barley, you are restoring organic material to the soil,” Davenport explained. The biodynamic advantages don’t end there: “If you have fields of tomatoes, squash, and strawberries, pests and diseases that target those crops will flourish – rotate barley in and you can break their life cycle and naturally reduce them the next year.”
A Wyoming native, Davenport grew up in Colorado and attended Westmont College in Santa Barbara as a biology major with an ecology focus. He went on to work with esteemed organic Santa Barbara farmer Tom Shepherd for three years, where he gained experience with native grass restoration and became interested in barley. Davenport is a fan of breweries that make rustic, earthy saisons showcasing malts in a traditional way, like Upright Brewing Co. out of Portland, Oregon. “I would love to see farmhouse beers made on farms,” he said. Funky sours and eastern European pilsners also exhibit flavors that fuel his passion for raw ingredients.
If malt is the focus, why not grow and process specialty malt that you can sell in smaller quantities at a higher price? “My focus in base malt is simply because it is what 90% of beer is made of. I’m interested in altering grains as little as possible. If I have something special like White Sonora Wheat I don’t want to roast it to the point where its subtleties are replaced by too much char. Low-kilning base malt allows the grain to have its unique characteristics shine through. But I understand the importance of crystal and caramel malt, and I’m interested in making them eventually.”
Craft Maltsters Gaining Momentum
In March 2012 a group of North American craft maltsters entered into talks about their emerging industry. At the 2013 Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) in Washington D.C. they set goals for bylaws and applied for non-profit status, and in January of 2014 their website went live. The Craft Maltsters Guild’s first annual meeting took place in Denver at the 2014 CBC in April. Their mission is “to promote and educate the general public about the tradition of craft malting in North America,” with 37 malt houses in the guild’s current database.
Recognizing the need to open the lines of communication between the malting and brewing industries, a Brewers Association (BA) working group comprised of prestigious brewers and industry professionals has prepared a white paper for publishing at the end of April that includes a wish list for all maltsters. Chris Swersey, Technical Brewing Projects Coordinator for the BA, oversaw the paper throughout development. “There are technical elements to the paper, but really it is the result of hundreds of conversations over the last few years with breeders, growers, maltsters, and brewers,” Swersey said. “We’re trying to distill some of the things we’ve heard and learned about ideals for malting barley. We are looking into key areas; for instance: what is the diastatic power of the malt you use now and what would it be ideally? We want a consensus, even a range – some sort of happy spot for all-malt brewers. Then we look at how that differs from what is currently being offered.”
Malting is a tradition historically bound to America’s identity – Samuel Adams worked in his family’s malthouse, not as a brewer. The practice has waned since Prohibition. But just as the beer industry has changed significantly in the last thirty years, so too will the malt industry shortly. “This is important,” Swersey said, “because while craft brewers are making 7.8% of the volume of beer in the U.S., a pretty small proportion, they are consuming around 27% of the malt consumed by all U.S. brewers. Maltsters sell volume. Craft beer is four to five years away from gobbling up one-third of the malt consumed by U.S. brewers. It can take eight to ten years to bring a new malting barley variety into industrial production. Because brewers’ needs differ from what is available, change with intent needs to begin now.”
More research is needed on malted barley. Swersey continued, “We don’t even have the nomenclature for talking about flavor and aroma in base malt, besides generalizations of the raw ingredient. Ask twelve different brewers about what malt flavor means and you’ll get twelve different answers.” The most significant research on the subject is being done at North Dakota State University, Oregon State University, and University of Idaho.
Advantages of Craft Malting
Almost all of the domestic malt used in U.S. beer – macro and craft alike – comes from a few industrial malting facilities in North America. These large-scale plants handle quantities of barley shipped in by train car from a number of states. Regardless of whether the production levels of the breweries they are supplying are in the thousands, or millions, of barrels per year, the base malt is often the same. This is at odds with the ethos of craft beer.
Andrea Stanley, President of the Craft Maltsters Guild and owner of Valley Malt in Hadley, Massachusetts explained, “One of the major reasons craft beer has been successful comes from the desire to support local. Craft malt is more expensive than commodity malt but we offer what they can’t: a locally-sourced primary ingredient.” The importance of craft malt isn’t just to uphold craft beer values, Stanley told West Coaster. “Barley is a cover crop that restores the soil. It is agriculturally beneficial to farmers, but until recently they had no one to sell it to in parts of the country like New England. If the craft malting industry can help small farms stay viable, that is in everyone’s interest. Farmers have a hard time direct-marketing, so we’ve created a new market for them.”
Additionally, the flavor potential of craft malt is greater than what is currently available. “A large malting company can’t blow a 100-ton batch on experimental flavors,” Davenport said. “There’s real potential to taste differences in barley from a particular region or year, but the territory is unexplored. We should be thinking about breeding specific varieties of barley for their flavor and regional growing requirements, not their disease resistance.” Craft malting is the necessary step between a regional family farm that wants to incorporate a rotation of barley and a brewer working on a 15 to 30 bbl system.
Growing and Malting
2-row barley is planted from seed in November right before the rainy season begins (in a non-drought year). A seedhead emerges on the sheath of grass as the plant grows to waist height about four months after planting. By summer the barley begins to dry out and is harvested with a combine when the grain has a moisture content of 13%. Because malt is sold by weight, the health and heft of each grain is the primary factor in producing a successful yield. After harvest the straw stalk might go back to the grower – Davenport gives his to one of his farmers, who then uses it for various purposes in his pumpkin patch – and the raw barley is sent to a seed cleaner before the barley kernels are sent to the maltster, during which the plant undergoes a short dormancy.
The malting process begins when barley kernels steep in water in a large, conical tank at about 58 degrees F for two days. Saturated with fluid that activates enzymes, the “chitted barley” now begins germination. Keeping the grain aerated at this point is essential for development, and it prevents any fungal growth. A traditional maltster utilizes floor malting, a process in which damp grain packed about four inches deep is regularly turned with a shovel. Modern and industrial maltsters use a pneumatic malting germination system which is automated and can handle much larger loads.
Three to five days into germination, an acrospire grows at one end underneath the husk and tiny rootlets emerge from the other side, while beta glucanase breaks down cell walls – this is called modification. This readies enzymes that will convert the grain’s starches to fermentable sugar that yeast can eat and make into beer. A maltster observes what state of modification the grain is in, and then determines if it is time to terminate germination in the “green malt” which has swollen to 46% moisture content. It is essential that modification be observed closely, as different malt requires a different level of development; a pilsner malt is less modified than 2-row barley malt, for example. Under-modified malt will clog a brewing system and over-modified malt will produce beer with too little body.
Germination and modification are terminated by the application of indirect heat, called kilning. This also stabilizes starches and gently toasts the grain. Kilning is done low and slow; at its highest point over a 24-hour period, the temperature will not exceed 200 degrees F. Now the finished base malt, which has dried out to 3% moisture, is ready for storage and use.
As the demand and popularity for craft beer continues to rise, small farmers and micro-maltsters have stepped up to deliver what large companies can’t: regionally-focused, premium-quality barley. Imagine the one-off possibilities if there were signature barley types for every growing region in America. Like the Maris Otter variety, the flavor and performance of which can’t be replicated anywhere outside the United Kingdom, California could have its own malt.
Not only are operations like California Malting Co. offering craft beer drinkers broader selection and a more nuanced, local product, they are reinvigorating the relationship between growers and brewers. “The conversation has started,” said Chris Swersey. “The malt market is fast becoming more complex and increasingly differentiated.”
Moorpark’s Enegren Brewing Co. is moving along with expansion plans that will see them jump from a 3-barrel brewery to one capable of producing 15 barrels — around 30 kegs — per batch. Enegren has been in operation since July 2011 and expects the new 7,000 sq ft space buildout to take 9-12 months once construction starts. In a residential community where homebrewing is a popular pastime and access to craft beer is minimal, the growth of a small brewery where locals regularly stop in for growlers is an exciting development.
On February 25 the brewery held their Conditional Use Permit hearing, which was open to the public in their business park tasting room just off Route 118. “The hearing couldn’t have gone any better. I’m glad we’re passed that,” Chris Enegren said in an email. Chris — one of two Enegren brothers — works part-time at Escondido-based brewhouse manufacturer Premier Stainless, and he’s designing the new system himself; one cool feature is that the team can control the brewery will their smartphones.
The expansion will include three 30-barrel fermentation tanks, in addition to the three 3-barrel and six 7-barrel vessels now in use. Once capacity is reached, Enegren will order 60-barrel tanks, all with the goal of meeting demand in Ventura County and strengthening ties in LA. The company produced around 475 barrels in 2013, and estimates 550 in 2014.
The 100-person capacity tasting room will be situated against rollup doors, opening the feel of the room while easing access to food trucks. The space will sit directly beside brewery operations and the barrel program, which is also set to increase.
Right now you can sample barrel-aged Helga (8.9%), a Belgian tripel aged in oak for 2.5 months, on tap at the brewery at 680 Flinn Ave #31 in Moorpark. The company recently bottled Batch 100, a Belgian dark strong ale aged in bourbon barrels, which will go on sale the first week of March.
Take Highway 101 north to the junction of Route 135 just beyond Buellton and you’ll find yourself in the tiny, historic town of Los Alamos. Frequented in the 19th Century by stagecoach travelers, the town’s current 1,800 or so residents still have to stop by the post office to collect their mail, but they needn’t venture much farther to satisfy their thirst for quality craft beer. At Babi’s Beer Emporium (sounds like “Bobby’s”) a modest wall of shelves is lined with bottles like Allagash Midnight Brett and Mikkeller Spontanrosehip, and three taps pour carefully-chosen selections like Ommegang Rare Vos, Tap It Rimfire Red, and 10 Barrel/Bluejacket/Stone Suede Imperial Porter.
Beer wasn’t always the focus though. Owner Sonja Magdevski also makes wine under the Casa Dumetz label, and the tasting room was wine-oriented for about two years. She then moved the operation down the block, and was planning to use the original location as an auxiliary wine space. But after a Thanksgiving visit to Jolly Pumpkin Brewing with friends Jon Carlson and Greg Lobdell from Northern United Brewing Co., she decided to turn to beer: “By the time we were returning from Michigan I was hunting for kegerators.”
The Beer Emporium opened in December, 2013. We first heard about it from a friend of a friend who casually mentioned that Emilio Estevez was pouring beer one weekend in January. Estevez is married to Magdevski, and will sometimes come in to lend a hand. The pair are new to the beer industry though. “I’m learning as I go, and tasting as I go,” she disclaims. “It’s a new audience, too. Beer geeks are more heady and intense than even the most invested wine drinker… Talking about beer that other people have made is much easier than talking about the wine I’ve made myself. I’m personally invested in my own wine — it has sweat-equity. Beer is more fun.”
The community has been there to help and encourage Babi’s. With Figueroa Mountain’s production brewery and Firestone Walker’s Barrelworks just 15 miles south in Buellton, good relationships aren’t taken for granted. “Last week Jeffers [Richardson, Director of Barrelworks] came by and invited me over to Barrelworks for some rare tastings. He told me all about Sankey kegs and conversions for European kegs — I had no idea,” Magdevski says with a laugh as she wraps a to-go bottle in bright blue tissue paper. She is gregarious and feminine, waving neighborly to familiar faces on the sidewalk outside.
Only a few months old, Babi’s is already in the throes of new growth. Three more taps will be added in February, including dedicated sour and cider lines. Monthly food events like this Saturday’s Bao + Beer will feature a food cart from Santa Barbara’s Sama Sama Kitchen, and in March they’ll welcome hot dogs from Let’s Be Frank. For Valentine’s weekend Babi’s will host an Oskar Blues tap takeover, pouring Ten FIDY imperial stout, Mama’s Little Yella Pils, and Dale’s Pale Ale. As a tasting room and bottle shop, Babi’s charges no corkage fee, but absorbs the additional cost of on-site consumption into the bottle price.
Particularly for county residents who have limited bottle shop options, the Los Alamos stop is a beer oasis. “When I make decisions with my distributors about what to to carry, my first question is, ‘Does BevMo have it?’” Magdevski chooses carefully for Babi’s limited shelf real estate, and she won’t sell bottles readily available at nearby chain grocery stores or retailers. “For me this is all about discovery, education, and fun. I invite everyone to come in for a taste and join me.”
Babi’s Beer Emporium, 448 Bell St., Ste. B; Los Alamos; (805) 344-1911
Central Coast Brewing Co. (San Luis Obispo) is beginning a barrel program, with their first sours expected in the fall. They recently started contracting a mobile canning service, Bay Area-based The Can Van, and will use them for a second round of canning in March. In 2013 they brewed 700 barrels, and with equipment purchased over the last few years they hope to reach 1,200 in 2014 (with a maximum capacity of 2,200). Their Brewing on Premises program allows locals to brew (under supervision) on a secondary 15-gallon setup.
Captain Fatty’s (Goleta) moved into a space in Old Town Goleta. They have acquired a seven-barrel brewhouse but are waiting on licensing to complete the expansion. Also of note is that this brewery uses barley grown in Santa Barbara County.
Pure Order Brewing Co. (Santa Barbara) brewed their inaugural 15-barrel batch January 21 after a few setbacks. They’re also seeding a hop yard on their property for future harvests.
Enegren Brewing (Moorpark) brews at all hours on a 3.5-barrel Premier Stainless system and they launched a barrel program last year. Enegren just tapped a bourbon barrel-aged version of their Daniel Irons Imperial Oatmeal Stout, with a bourbon barrel-aged Belgian Strong soon to be bottled and released.
City Tavern in Culver City hosted Brewers Unplugged: 22 Breweries 1 Night on Thursday, September 26 offering some of the best beers in the county while uniting the people that produce them. Most corners of the craft beer industry were represented; owners and brewers joined forces with media and sales representatives and of course, the ever-eager consumer. Everyone was locally-based and enthusiastic to sample the wide array of brews. At City Tavern, where small pours are available, there was no excuse for walking away without an opinion on every beer and an introduction to every brewery.
The vast majority of bodies blocking servers and food runners from attending to their tables were those of proprietors and brewers. From brewery owners Cyrena Nouzille (Ladyface) and Meg Gill (Golden Road) to brewmasters Dieter Foerstner (Angel City) and Rob Croxall (El Segundo) you’d be hard-pressed to uncover an L.A. county brewer absent. Those with smaller operations who both own and brew were in attendance, like Henry Nguyen (Monkish) and Andrew Luthi (Ohana), as well as those brewing on others’ systems or still looking for their own brick and mortar to call home: Kip Barnes (L.A. Ale Works), Simon Ford (Phantom Carriage) and Kingsley Toby (Pipe Dream).
On tap were highly-coveted, small-batch sweets like Naughty Sauce (blonde milk stout, Noble Ale Works), Seme della Vita (tripel with vanilla beans, Monkish), and vibrant wildcards like Surf Shack (sour blonde, Ohana) and Karma Kolsch (Thai tea-infused kolsch, L.A. Ale Works). Local favorites maintained their popularity, especially Unity (“red mild” brewed with hibiscus and honey, Eagle Rock) and Bryeian (Cascadian dark rye, The Bruery).
The event wasn’t just about great beer and brewers, it was about uniting the L.A. beer community. However many hours they put into making beer every week, these players don’t often get to commingle or commiserate with so many other operators in one place, at one time. The advantage to being so tightly packed into the space was the opportunity to overhear conversations (without blatantly eavesdropping) on topics both polarizing and inspiring. ABC regulation of breweries endorsing bars was highly debated as were strategies for fundraising and finding investors. Suggestions on how to stand out from hundreds of other breweries at the Great American Beer Festival were offered, and every brewer’s sore-spot — bars that neglect to properly clean their taplines — induced groans. Talk of the financial risk factors and high stakes of barrel-aging — exposing your lineup to unwanted bugs for the possibility of expanding your brand and garnering the respect of peers and consumers — was especially interesting.
Regardless of the micro-politics that play out in the Southland beer industry, Thursday night was an opportunity to put differences aside and put faces to names (or more accurately, brewers to beer labels). We must further explore the multi-faceted identity that makes up the L.A. beer scene: idiosyncrasies that separate the west side from east side or the valley from the south bay; the potential for L.A. beer to be recognizable by its proclivity for experimentation; the consistency with which our beer pairs to food. Precisely how our community distinguishes itself from others may not yet be determined. L.A. beer is still young and only beginning to course through a rebellious adolescence. The only way for our community to mature and present a unified front, is by coming together, in nights like Brewers Unplugged.
Brewers Unplugged Taplist:
The Dudes’ Outsourced IPA
Noble Aleworks Naughty Sauce
Ohana Surf Shack Sour Blonde
El Segundo Casa Azul
Brouwerij West Brilliant but Lazy
LA Aleworks Karma Kolsch
Bootleggers Wildfire Wheat
Strand Atticus on cask
Cismontane Blacks Dawn
Ladyface La Grisette
Eagle Rock Unity
Golden Road Smoking Bush IPA
Phantom Carriage Muis
Pipe Dream Dark Horse
Monkish Seme Della Vita
Congregation Three Cords and the Truth IPA
Angel City Eureka! Wit
Hangar 24 Polycot
Taps Pumpkin Ale
Smog City Groundwork Coffee Porter
The Bruery Bryeian