Malt generally gets overlooked by brewers these days with everyone losing their minds about the new hops coming out every day, but really it’s the soul of the beer. It can be easy to make a malt forward beer sometimes if you’re using a high percentage of speciality malts like crystal, chocolate, aromatic, roast… the list goes on. The fact is amongst all of this what generally happens is that brewers these days end up getting a base ale malt that doesn’t put too much emphasis on it’s own flavour because the crystal will generally dominate and cloud that. I’m of a different opinion and really like the clarity from a high quality ale or pilsner malt and try my best to put the focus on what this is contributing over the caramels and chocolates. It’s making up 80-100% of the grain bill! So we put a huge amount of emphasis on selecting top quality ale and pilsner malt.
In our brewery we use a mixture of malts, they’re actually just from two locations, so we purchase all of our ale related malts from the UK. For our lager, we purchase malt from Germany. Almost all of our base malts are made traditionally in a process called floor malting, which is a practice that’s been largely left behind by modern malting technology. Floor malting is what it sounds like: it’s malted on the floor. It’s been the same process for well over 100 years and is steeped in tradition (pun intended). What’s different about it is that the malt is germinated on the ground in a carefully designed (and usually very old) malt house and turned by hand rather than by large machines. There are many differences in the way traditional maltsters make their malt, specifically the separation of processes like kindling and germination, but the main reason we choose floor malt is the complexity of flavour. This is quite often contributed by the microflora of the malthouse floor itself, something big maltsters just can’t quite achieve without the same process.
Malting is an art in itself and here we really try to support people who are putting just as much care, work and attention into what they do as what we do in terms of brewing. The benefits of traditionally floor malted barley is the consistency in the size of the barley, the flavour that’s imparted by the traditional kilning and the small batches for freshness, just like our beers. When we order malt from our guys, they don’t just get stock from the warehouse, they go to work and malt us a fresh batch and send it over! That’s service.
So for almost 90% of the malt we use we import from other countries, and I know what you’re thinking – why aren’t you guys using Irish malt??
Here in Ireland we have some of the best growing barley in the world, talented and hardworking farmers (some are family) and really talented maltsters working in these big plants, but some varieties that are being grown here are being made specifically for the monoliths of Irish brewing, and that’s fine. That’s just business. Unfortunately what they ask for is barley that hasn’t been produced specifically for it’s flavour, but more for it’s potential to extract sugar and ease of use in a big brewery. This can dictate the varieties being produced and it can often mean our options are limited. So we found the smallest, most artisanal and best malt producer we could when we looked outside Ireland, and it just so happened that they used to be owned by an Irish brewery! They were over the moon to work with a new Irish brewery and we couldn’t be happier with their malt and friendliness when working together. We’re set to be up to 10% of what they produce annually and get to support something that is in danger of being lost as a craft, and as we grow they can too. We rely on one another greatly and it’s this relationship that directly affects the quality of the beer we produce here.
I would love to be able to buy Irish malt made in the same way and that carries the same flavour. At the moment that’s just not an option for us…but I have spoken to Irish growers, I’ve had Irish growers come to the brewery and see what we’re working with and there is real interest there. I think that as consumers move away from the macro-breweries more and more, there will be a higher demand for Irish malt from craft brewers, just like me, keen to use Irish ingredients at any opportunity they can get. It’s really a case of a rising tide will raise all boats.
We produce all of our ales with traditionally floor-malted barley. So, Francis Big Bangin’ IPA for instance is 100% floor malt. No crystal, no chocolate. It’s just straight up, no compromise, cream of the crop floor malt. Yes, it makes it more expensive to make, but regular pale malt can vary through the year – it’s generally spring barley that can have a lighter flavor – but the quality of this malt really shines through.
To work with people who are as passionate about making their malt as we are about making our beers is something that’s important to me as a brewer. It’s being re-born in Ireland at the moment, slowly but surely, and it’s something I’m keeping an eye on very closely.
Rye River Brewing Co.