Malt is the soul of Beer, the spirit of Spirits, the essence of Barley.
Malt stands as the foundation of the four primary ingredients of beer. It is the base on which water, hops, and yeast create a masterpiece. Malt is important to both brewers and distillers because it provides the carbohydrates and proteins that become sugars and enzymes—ingredients that are essential to the creation of alcoholic beverages. The tradition and technique of malting cereal grains goes back to the dawn of civilization, and the role of Maltster is just as ancient.
I recently had the opportunity to interview a California Maltster, Curtis Davenport, of Admiral Maltings. Their malt house uses a two-floor malting operation, each holds batches of green malt of approximately 7-7.5 tons of grain. Each batch is finished in the kiln, where heated air is blown through the grain, imparting color and flavor. The following is my conversation with Curtis, Head Maltster.
Q: How long has Admiral Maltings been in operation, and how long has it been a dream?
A: Admiral Maltings started production in summer 2017. Ron, Dave and I started planning it in 2010/2011. I did my own smaller malting operation for a year in 2012 that was in Santa Barbara, then I moved to the Bay Area at the end of 2014, and that’s when we started seriously planning Admiral. We started construction in January 2017, then started our first batch and production in August 2017.
Q: How many people were involved at the start?
A: There were three of us: Ron Silberstein (of Thirsty Bear Brewing Company), Dave McLean (of Magnolia Brewing Company), and I are the three founders.
Q: What attracted you to malting?
A: I got in to malting when I was farming in Santa Barbara area, primarily growing fruits and vegetables. Eventually we had some ground that we couldn’t irrigate, so I began thinking about what crops could be dry farmed there. At the same time, I was growing some native grasses for restoration projects, which lead to me thinking a lot about plants that are naturally conducive to growing in the California climate. That got me started in growing grains that could be dry farmed, like barley. Being interested in beer is what got me to connect all these parts together. I thought cereal grains would be a better option for California then growing water intensive crops, like hops. And it hit me - the missing link was that there is no maltster to connect farmers and brewers. That’s what got me into it. I then recognized that there was no one malting in California. I started looking at the malting industry in general and that’s when I learned that not only were there few malting facilities but the ones that did exist weren’t serving craft brewers. So, intersecting all these issues is what brought me to malting.
Q: What is it like to be the only facility like this in California and one of few in the country?
A: I would say it was more challenging to open because there wasn’t a template. It is one thing to open a brewery, you can go to a course and learn a lot about beer and there’s hundreds of consultants ready to help you open the brewery, and there are many equipment suppliers who can sell you exactly what you need. But in malting we had to kind of design everything, and there is not off-the-shelf equipment to buy, or many other maltsters to visit and learn from. That was challenging. Though at the same time it is pretty cool to be one of the few. I hope that others get into it. There are a few other small malting operations, and there’s always rumors about another malting company opening. I think it would be helpful if there were more, because it would raise more awareness and get a few more farmers growing the grain. Admiral is at a point where it is sort of great to be the only ones, but at the same time if there were more malt houses it would help bring up the parallel markets like grain growing, grain handling, and barley breeding. That would give more incentive to the barley breeders to breed California specific malting barleys. So, it would be nice to have a little bit of competition. Either we need to grow to be a larger producer or have others in the industry, or both.
Q: Why did you choose Alameda as location of the malt house?
A: We knew we wanted to be in the Bay Area from the beginning. Ron and Dave both started breweries in San Francisco, Thirsty Bear and Magnolia. They were very much a part of the Bay Area brewing community. We wanted to open close to San Francisco, because Ron and Dave knew so many brewers in the area giving us a market to access from the beginning. Also, there was a real concentration of brewers in the area. Another factor was being in an urban area, because we wanted to have a pub (The Rake). Basically, we wanted to be near our customers and close to beer drinkers. Alameda was a nice combination of good manufacturing space but also close to the urban centers, so lots of people can come visit the malt house and come to the pub.
Q: What are some advantages/disadvantages craft malting has over larger malting operations?
A: Well scale is both the biggest advantage and the biggest disadvantage. Scale is really what differentiates us. Our scale allows us to have a much wider range of products. Because we are not trying to make 500 tons at a time, we can build a kiln that is capable of more than one kind of malt. It’s hard for a big maltster to make a lot of different types of malt because they have kilns that are designed for one single purpose. Trying to change that purpose when it’s a large sophisticated malting operation is very difficult, more difficult than designing a small versatile kiln like we have. So, scale is a real advantage as it allows us to make a wider range of products and to experiment more. We don’t require 1,000 tons of grain to make one experimental malt, and then don’t have to sell that thousand tons of experimental malt. Another advantage of being a smaller urban craft malt house is that customers can come visit our facility, we are not out in the middle of nowhere with a huge facility that really is not conducive to a pub atmosphere. At Admiral Maltings our customers can come here and talk face-to-face with us and learn about malt over a beer. But at the same time, scale is the reason why we can’t compete on price with the big maltsters.
Q: Where do you see the craft malting industry in the next 10-20 years?
A: I see similarities between craft malting growth and craft beer growth, but I think it will always be a wholesale business, so it’s not like there will be a maltster on every block like there is a brewery nowadays. It’s a totally different type of business but I do think malting will be a lot more localized. I believe the Craft Maltsters Guild started in 2010, and back when I joined in 2011 there was like 10 of us, and now there is over a couple hundred members. I think now there’s like 80 production malt houses as part of that, and they are all over the country. So, I do foresee more small maltsters similar to our size (1 to 10-ton batches) starting up.
Q: What is the capacity of floor malting?
A: I do think that the way you germinate the malt influences the quality of the flavor present in the malt and that we have a unique product with floor malting. Here at Admiral we probably push the capacity for floor malting. Space becomes limiting factor. To increase capacity with floor malting you would need a much larger facility and paying per square foot just to have big open germination areas is a big expense. The labor also becomes a factor with large floor malting facilities.
Q: How many kinds of malt does Admiral produce?
A: I believe we have 12 or 13 products: Admiral Pils, Maiden Voyage, Feldblume, Gallagher’s Best, Pacific Victor, Midway, Admiral’s Hearth, Kilnsmith I, Kilnsmith II, and Kilnsmith III, California Spirit, Malted Rye, Malted Wheat, Malted Oats - so that’s 14.
Q: Do you find it challenging to malt both brewing malt and distiller's malt?
A: No, I do not think it’s challenging. Actually, it is really nice to have the flexibility that malting both gives us. For instance, before we were making California Spirit (which is our distiller’s malt) and we received barley that had high protein, we would have to reject that barley and the grower would sell it as feed. But now we accept that high-protein barley and the grower gets paid twice as much for the barley and we can make a product out of it. Making both gives us more opportunity.
Q:: Is there anything else you would like to share or add?
A: I see a real opportunity for craft beer which is such a big industry in California to trickle down and impact the agriculture in California; supporting more dry-land farming and sustainable farming. The way that needs to happen is that some of that value of the craft beer needs to make its way to the farmers. We need the brewers to pay a little more for their malt, so the farmers can get a little more. This would encourage dry-land and sustainable farming in California. And craft maltsters making the malt on a smaller scale, would then deliver an exceptional quality product to the brewers. This is going to require people to get outside of the commodity mindset. Also, we want to educate the consumers to what is in their cup, which is what I think here at Admiral we are doing, then people will start appreciating it more and asking for quality from their brewers.
Admiral invites the commercial brewer, the home brewer, and any distillers to enjoy the quality of their floor-malted, hand-crafted grain. Come by the malt house for a tour, visit The Rake for a craft beer made with Admiral malt, or visit Admiral’s website for more information: admiralmaltings.com.
Interview taken on May 31st, 2019 at Admiral Maltings.
651 W Tower Ave, Alameda, CA
Author Bio: Patrick Grass is a professional maltster and avid home brewer. In his free time, he enjoys the restorative qualities of the wilderness and natural world.