Thursday, January 9, 2014

for the love of craft beer - brandon ade of blacklands malt

Photo courtesy of Brandon Ade

You've all heard of craft beer, but have you heard of craft malt? It's easy to forget about malted barley with all of the hop craze in America right now. Yet, without malted barley, there would be no beer. It's the backbone of almost every beer you drink, and one man is bringing malt to the forefront of the 'support local' revolution right here in the great state of Texas. His name is Brandon Ade and he's the brains and operations behind Blacklands Malt right outside of Austin,TX in Leander.

Brandon's goal is to bring even more local flare into the world of craft beer here in Texas by providing high quality malt to brewers. But it's not just brewers he's providing to, it's bakers, brewers, homebrewers, distilleries, anyone who wants it as he says. 'You want some? Come and get it.' Some have already taken notice of his drive for quality malt, like Pinthouse Pizza, creating a Single Malt and Single Hop (SMASH) pale ale using the Pale Moon American Two Row malt. Joe Mohrfeld, head brewer of Pinthouse Pizza, used the classic German decoction method during brewing to really bring out more complexities from the Blacklands Malt. Others that will be using their malt are Jester King, Twisted X and Black Star Co-op. Something tells me you will be seeing his malt being used more and more in the future, bringing a little more terroir into Texas craft beer.

In a nutshell, what is the process of malting? (i.e What would you say, ya do here?, little Office Space humor)
Well our website goes in to pretty good detail about the process of malting, but in very simple terms, I grow enzymes. The job of a maltster is not to grow a plant, but to develop natural enzymes within the grain that will later be taken advantage of by brewers to convert starches to sugar. It is in fact a constant struggle in malting to limit the vegetative growth of the plant as too much leads to waste and undesirable by-products.

What is unique about what we do is that we are the only malthouse in Texas "growing" these enzymes. Our vision has always been to bring the production of malt back to a local level and give the brewing, distilling, and baking industries a quality malt Texans can be proud to use. That includes not just the local production of malt but the sourcing of barley and wheat from Texas. In order to get a true ground to glass experience you have to start with the regional growth of barley, which is the life blood of the business. As I'm sure you've heard before, "No barley, no beer".

The 3 major steps of malting are steeping (soak the grain in water), germination (allow time to grow), and kilning (stop growth by drying). But what do I really do most of the time? Clean grain, Clean equipment, shovel 1000s of pounds of malt by hand, clean the production area, and constantly obsess over temperature, humidity, and moisture levels. Occasionally I'll actually bag some malt and sell it too. Did I mention cleaning?

Do you think malt ever gets jealous of all the hop hype? Do you think people will ever go gaga over SRM like they did with IBU?
Hops can keep the sex appeal, malt is confident in the background. In all seriousness, the malting business has been such a faceless industry for so long I think it is taken for granted the challenges involved with sourcing barley and producing a quality malt. Part of that veil is due to the industrialization of malt over the last century where barley is grown in only a handful of regions in the world and malted in a few giant malthouses. In short, it is not very accessible. When was the last time you visited a farm to go strolling through a field of barley?

One of the reasons hops has taken the spotlight is in part due to the production of hops in new regions of the world, namely the Americas. As new varieties were developed in the United States, coupled with reinvigorated enthusiasm in homebrewing and craft brewing, hops became accessible to the general public in a way barley and malt has yet to do. People understand more of hops, where they are grown, how they are grown, and how to use them. Hops are traditionally and largely classified by where they are grown, and that is a very key point. They have locality to them and that drives interest and engagement because people like to talk about where something comes from. But how many people know where the barley used to make their malt was grown?

While I don't think malt will ever need that level of rock star attention hops is receiving right now, I do believe as small malthouses begin to crop up across the country and drive the local growth of barley in non-traditional areas more and more attention will be given to where malt comes from.  Education and visibility into malting will naturally drive a focus on the local sourcing of ingredients. And that is important for all ingredients in beer, not just malt. What I care about more than stealing the spotlight from hops is shining a brighter light on the sourcing of all ingredients and where they are grown. It can only enhance our experience and enjoyment of beer to have locally sourced ingredients and I believe that is the next great leap forward in brewing and distilling. 

3. What do you hope to achieve with being a local maltster?
Simple. I want to grow barley in Texas and make a variety of great malts. And I want that malt to be available to anyone looking for a sustainable, locally produced malt. I'd also like to feed my family and keep the lights on as well.

Are you primarily a maltster for breweries? Do you anticipate expanding to sell to distilleries as well?
I'm a maltster for everyone. I've already sold to homebrewers, commercial breweries, and distilleries. You want some? Come and get it.

And last, but definitely not least, what does craft beer mean to you?
Community. Beer is what I enjoy with my friends and family and what often brings us together. And now that my livelihood is connected with the beer industry it means profoundly more to me. One of my goals of starting this business has been to use it as a vehicle to bring my community of friends and family together and support the growth of the people around me.
I live and breathe malt every day and can talk about it for hours. But you know what really excites me right now? We are in the early planning phases of establishing the first community garden in Leander right next to the malthouse, fed by the waste water we produce. Instead of just flushing perfectly usable water down the drain we can use it to fuel fruit and vegetable plots. Sounds funny that of all things a garden is what gets me jazzed, but giveback and the cohesion of community are just some of the things a community garden will help foster. Beer has made all of that possible, in the most indirect of ways, but in the end if I can give something back to the people I love then I owe it to the community building power of beer.

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