In the Beginning!
If you have studied a little about how whiskey is made, you no doubt have been introduced to the five steps of whiskey production: mashing, fermenting, distilling, maturation and bottling. What is often left out is the real beginning of whiskey production—the preparation phase. There is so much science available and so many decisions to be made in the selection of and preparation of grains for a mash bill (recipe) that today most distillers go to an expert titled a Malster. To find out what a Malster does, I visited, Root Shoot Malting in Loveland, Colorado.
When I arrived, I was met by owner, Todd Olander, and Root Shoot Malting’s, Malt House Manager, Mike Myers. Todd emphasized that Root Shoot Malting is deeply grounded and invested in Northern Colorado. The purpose of the company is to specialize in providing the highest quality local grain and craft malt available to the brewing and distilling industries. Malting barley has been part of their harvest for more than 40 years, originally growing for Coors and Budweiser in the 1970’s. Today they offer an increasing selection of craft base and specialty malts, including raw grains, to give beer and spirit producers exactly the flavor they desire. Todd says, “Craft beer and spirits deserve the very best craft malt, and it all begins with a great harvest.”
Olander Farms is located on 1,500 acres of irrigated land and they harvest alfalfa, rye, wheat, corn and barley. They are in the unique position to control the entire malting process from seed variety and growth, to harvest and final kilning. They give Colorado breweries and distilleries the ability to procure local, consistent and high-quality craft products. Todd said, “100% of our barley is Colorado-grown and malted. We plant, tend, harvest and malt all our grains on our family farm. Each and every bag is filled at our malt house with unparalleled care for the brewing and distilling industries.”
Before we start the tour, let’s set the stage with a definition of malt or malting. Basically, malted grain, or 'malt' as it is most commonly known, is grain packed with starch, enzymes, protein, vitamins, and minerals plus many other minor constituents that provide the brewer and distiller with their main raw material.
Malt contains all the key enzymes for starch breakdown during the mashing stage of the distilling process. These enzymes produce fermentable sugars to supplement the other key nutrients for yeast growth that malt provides. These include amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.
Todd and Mike were super nice and very accommodating. We started out tour by looking at the large silos that store fresh grain harvested from their farm. This grain has been cleaned by an outside company. Todd said “This cleaning process uses a series of screens/sieves and air, to sort the large kernels and remove other plant material/dirt/rocks, etc. In the next few months we plan to begin doing our own cleaning at the malt house.”
Next, the grain is moved by an auger system to a station where the grain is first weighted and then moved through pipes to a Steeping Vessel inside the malt house. The steeping vessel is about the size of a large tractor trailer cab standing on its end. The purpose of steeping is to increase the moisture in the grain from around 12% to approximately 45%. This is achieved through successive immersions and air rests over a period of 2-3 days. During this process, the grain begins to germinate and therefore produces heat and carbon dioxide. In the immersion cycles, the grain is immersed in water and air is blown through the wet grain to keep the level of dissolved oxygen in the water high enough to not stifle the developing embryos. In the air rests, the carbon dioxide is removed.
Due to the varying degree of moisture tolerance of the different grains, steeping is a crucial step in the malting process. When the steeping process is complete, all the grain should be evenly hydrated and show signs of germination.
At this point, the grain is moved by pipe to the germination-kilning combo drum. Root Shoot Malting is the first craft malt house in the United States to operate a Mälzungssystemen (say the three times quickly) from Kaspar Schulz in Bamberg, Germany. The system includes the steeping vessel mentioned above. The germination-kilning combo drum is massive-about the size of a train engine. Todd said they selected this system for its advanced technology. On the day of my visit German engineers, representatives of Kaspar Schultz, were accomplishing the final instillation steps to commission the second combo drum. This drum malting equipment can produce 10 tons of Colorado malt per week. With two drums on line, Root Shoot Malting will be the largest craft malt house in Colorado.
The Germination phase is the 'control' phase of malting. Germination continues for a further 4-5 days depending on the product type being made. The germinating grain bed is kept at temperature and oxygenated by providing a constant flow of humidified air through the bed at specific temperatures. The combo drum is turned regularly to prevent rootlets matting and to maintain a loosely packed grain bed. The Maltster manipulates the germination conditions to vary the type of malt being manufactured.
Kilning, the third phase of malting, dries the grain down to 3-5% moisture and arrests germination. Large volumes of hot air are blown through the grain bed. By varying air flows and kiln temperatures, malts of different colors can be produced with varying flavor profiles. At the end of kilning the malt is cooled and the tiny rootlets removed before analysis and storage. The final malt is analyzed extensively according to malt type and customer profile.
Finally, if requested by the customer, the grain is milled to grist using a 4-roller mill - ideal for brew mashing and single malt whiskeys. Finally, it is bagged for delivery to brewery’s and distilleries.
I learned that Root Shoot uses only 2-row barley vs. 6-row. Todd says, “The husk to starch ratio is less in 2-row barleys, and 2-row is usually plumper and uniform. We have malted 6-row previously, but there isn't a large demand for it in the brewing industry.”
They offer an increasing selection of craft base and specialty malts, including raw grains, to give beer and spirit exactly the flavor the producer’s desire. For barley they produce three types: Genie, Metcalf, and Odyssey. As an example of just how good their products are, Todd received a first place Malt Cup win at the Craft Maltster’s Guild Conference this month (February 2019). This double-blind competition had 21 entries from malt houses around the country, and Root Shoot’s Genie Pale malt took home the gold.
In the Specialty Craft malt area, they provide a Distiller’s malt (Metcalf), malted Wheat and later this year will be producing a Malted Rye. All their grains are also available as Raw Grains for distillers who don’t need a malted product.
All in all, my trip to Root Shoot Malting was enjoyable. Their malting process was nothing like I saw at a few distilleries in Scotland. Technology and automation have arrived and in a big way.
“Keep the wind to your back and a smile on your face.”
Howell F. Wright