A Terroir for Beer?
Admiral Maltings strives to make Bay Area beer truly local
By Derrick Peterman
It’s a fact that Bay Area brewers preaching “buy local” hate to admit: Their beer may be brewed locally, but the ingredients come from hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Much of the barley used for making beer is grown in the Upper Midwest and Canada, with plenty more coming from Europe.
In 2010, Ron Silberstein of San Francisco’s ThirstyBear Organic Brewery wanted to change that. He found a farmer near Sacramento eager to supply him with barley. “I had all this beautiful organic barley from Nigel Walker* of Eatwell Farm,” Silberstein recalls. Problem was, Silberstein couldn’t brew with the grain until it was malted, a process that involves germination to activate enzymes critical for brewing and then drying the grains in a kiln. He wound up sending the barley to a small-batch malting house in Colorado, the closest facility he found available.
“The carbon footprint going into all that was absurd, and so was the price,” says Silberstein, who at least felt gratified that his ThirstyBear Locavore Ale, brewed from this malt, resonated with drinkers at the pub. But it got Silberstein thinking: How might he feasibly brew a true locally sourced beer?
Over the next few years, Silberstein found a partner in Dave McLean of San Francisco’s Magnolia Brewing. The duo lined up other investors interested in helping to launch a local malt house for California-grown grain. They began looking for sites in Alameda, Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville. As deals for potential locations fell through, the city of Alameda showed Silberstein a World War II naval dry goods warehouse that was
“I fell in love with it immediately,” recalls Silberstein. “It had wide open spaces and cathedral-like ceilings with majestic redwood trusses.”
The plan started coming together, and now they are set to open Admiral Maltings any day. Curtis Davenport, who has a background in organic farming and previously ran a small malting operation near Santa Barbara, will oversee the day-to-day operations.
Reviving a Traditional Malting Technique
The main plan at Admiral Maltings is twofold: to accept only grain grown in California using sustainable farming practices and to employ traditional floor malting, a technique that was gradually phased out more than a hundred years ago as malt houses switched to methods utilizing huge containers that could generate higher volumes. Floor malting facilities still exist in a few spots around the globe, most of them supporting tradition-bound breweries in Europe using local grain.
On entering the spacious Admiral Maltings warehouse, one sees a pair of enormous grey tanks gleaming at the far end of the concrete malting floor. “For the first step, the grains will be steeped in water in those two large tanks,” explains Davenport. “Combined, they hold 10 tons of barley malt and 8,000 gallons of water.”
That water is circulated and filtered three times during the 48-hour steeping process using a high-tech filtering system developed with funding from NASA. It saves thousands of gallons of water from being flushed down the drain for each batch of malt.
“After two days of soaking, [the grain] gets spread out on the floor about six inches deep and germinates for about four days,” continues Davenport. “During that time it’s raked and turned to give it fresh air and let it
Germination generates heat, and if the temperature of the grains exceeds 55°, chemical reactions will begin producing undesirable flavors in the malt. At Admiral Maltings, a system of embedded pipes cools the floor under the grains.
A real distinction between automated malting houses that rely on sensors and Admiral Maltings is that Davenport, in his quest for peak flavor, uses human senses and experience to determine when it’s time to move the grain to the kiln. “You’re walking through it, you’re very immersed in it,” says Davenport of this step.
Why is Floor Malting Better?
Most brewers swear that floor malting produces a better beer, but the “why” of that brings less consensus. “It’s up for debate as to whether the flavor differences come from the germination on the floor or the kilning process,” explains Davenport. “Everyone talks about the germination on the floor, but floor malting houses have shallower kilns, so you can get higher temperatures to create more color and flavor.” As for why taste advantage happens on the malting floor, Davenport says, “It’s spread out thin and gently turned by hand, so there’s thought that this influences different microbes growing on the grain. Some think that’s what contributes
to the flavor.”
Local Malts for Bay Area Breweries
It may be a small batch malt house, but Admiral Maltings has plenty of potential to change the Bay Area brewing landscape and support a small ecosystem of California barley farmers. At peak capacity, Admiral Maltings can produce 1,440 tons of malt per year, enough to brew 60,000 barrels of beer. Your local brewpub sells roughly 1,000 barrels of beer each year, so there will be plenty of locally grown California malt available for area breweries. The best part of that is that beer lovers can come taste it here: Admiral Maltings is building a pub on-site with approximately 20 taps to feature beers made from the house ingredient.
Local brewers are eager to get their hands on locally sourced malt. “It’s going to be a big experiment,” explains John Martin, co-owner of Drake’s and Triple Rock Brewery in the East Bay and an Admiral Maltings investor. “The fun part is, we brew small batches of beer, and they do small batches of malt. We can buy their malts and play with it. The flavor of beer lately has been all about hops, and now it’s time to flip it over and work on the malt side of it.”
A California Beer Terroir?
“Barley is the soul of beer,” says Silberstein. “We want to bring that terroir, that place into beer.”
But will simply using California grain create a new beer terroir? Does terroir even exist in malt?
Large industrial brewers have known for years that barley grown in different regions produces unique tastes. “MillerCoors grows barley in multiple states—Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Montana—and malts them separately because each barley behaves differently in the malt house,” explains Davenport. “They’re blended back together so the batches don’t have a Wyoming taste, a Colorado taste.”
To give each batch of malt its unique identity, Admiral Maltings won’t even mix grains from different farms. You’ll know exactly which farm the grain came from in each batch of Admiral Maltings malt.
Davenport sums it up, “Terroir in beer has been more hidden than expressed. What we’re really trying to discover is how much terroir we can express.” ♦
*Ron Silberstein on Nigel Walker
(B. December 24, 1960, d. July 1, 2017)
“Nigel was a very special organic pioneer. I may not ever have thought of growing local organic barley had he not done it so well. He also gave me my first leads as to where to get malting quality barley seed and what farmers I might ask to grow for me. It saddens me deeply to hear he has passed. The local organic movement has suffered a tragic loss.”
If the name Admiral Maltings sounds perfect for a business located on an old U.S. naval base, Ron Silberstein confirms that choosing that name was indeed “a nod to history and location.” He adds another historical note, “The last malting facility to close in 1981 or ‘82 in San Francisco, Bauer & Schweitzer, was originally founded by an admiral in the U.S. Navy.”
Derrick Peterman enjoys running and also exploring the Bay Area’s great beers and breweries. He writes about beer (mostly) and running (sometimes) on the blog “Ramblings of a Beer Runner” at ramblings-of-a-beer-runner.blogspot.com.