Texas in the Bottle

by Kristi Willis
Photography by Kate LeSueur

Texans are very proud of the craft beer movement that has overtaken the state, garnering a rightful national spotlight and giving the world a taste of what it means to live right here, right now. And while some brewers take advantage of our abundant local ingredients to imbue their beers with a unique Lone Star terroir, a key ingredient—specifically, malt—most often comes from outside the state. In fact, brewers typically buy malt from around the globe, and it’s often made with barley grown in Canada, Europe, China and even Australia. 

Beer lover and homebrewer Brandon Ade contemplated this paradox and decided he wanted to provide Texas brewers with a local solution for their malt. “I knew nothing about malting, or if barley even grew in Texas,” says Ade. “But I knew that this was what I was meant to do.” 

Ade soon left his engineering job to found Blacklands Malt, a micro malt house outside of Leander. But before the first batch of true, 100-percent Texas-produced malt could become a reality, Ade had to learn a bit about farming and locate a local source for barley. He reached out to Texas A&M AgriLife Research and found that few farms in Texas still grew the grain, and none grew the barley variety used for malt. 

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The university partnered with Ade to find a variety of grain suited for Texas’s climate. They tested 30 varieties of barley at the university’s Stiles Farm Foundation in Thrall, and learned quickly that they had to plant the grain outside of the traditional season because of our state’s scorching heat. After identifying a few varieties that would thrive, Ade contracted with several farmers to grow the barley for him. 

“I was working with four farmers, but two of them couldn’t plant because the fields were too wet from all of the rain we had in the winter,” says Ade. “It’s been a learning experience for me. Malting is part of the farming process and we’re at the whim of Mother Nature.”

Until the first harvest of local barley is ready (anticipated in late May of 2014), Ade is using Colorado barley to perfect the three-step malting process: steeping, germinating and kilning. First, the grain goes through an immersion steeping, alternately soaked in water and then drained and dried. Ade repeats this process several times over two days—constantly measuring the moisture content of the grain until it is ready for germination. 

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The barley is then moved to the germination bed where it grows for four to six days. During this phase, Ade periodically turns the malt by hand with a shovel to keep the now sprouting roots from growing together. “You don’t want it to clump, and since we don’t have an automated system yet to turn the grain, I have to do it,” he says. “It’s pretty backbreaking work.”

Finally, the grain enters the kilning phase, during which it is dried to stop growth. The temperature, duration and humidity levels during kilning develop the colors and flavors of the malt. “The kiln is where the magic happens as far as color and flavor,” says Ade. 

Other ingredients may be added, or the kilning process might be modified to create specialty malts. For example, if a brewer wants to make a sour-style beer, such as a Berliner Weisse, American sour ale or lambic, acidulated malt is needed—requiring the malt house to add lactic acid during kilning. With the popularity of wheat-style beers, Blacklands Malt is also creating wheat malt—a natural fit for Texas because red winter wheat is already grown locally by a number of area farms. 

Blacklands Malt already sells to homebrewers and a number of local breweries, including Black Star Co-op, Hops & Grain Craft Brewery, Jester King Brewery, Kamala Brewing, Pinthouse Pizza Craft Brewpub and Twisted X Brewing Company. And many Texas distilleries have expressed an interest in getting in on the act, too. To keep up with the increased demand, Ade recently doubled his storage capacity thanks to a grant from the Austin Food & Wine Alliance. 

With the fast-paced growth of the local beverage industry still in full swing, the malt house will no doubt stay busy trying to keep up the pace. And once the local barley is ready, Ade says he looks forward to being able to offer even more of Texas in every bottle produced.

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Grow your own barley

Jonathan Cobb of Redemption Farm has been on a barley learning curve of late. The farmer was looking for a cover crop to grow when he was connected to Brandon Ade and Blacklands Malt through fellow farmers. Cobb hadn’t considered growing barley, but was convinced by Ade that the crop was a good fit.

Growing barley in Texas was common in the ’50s, but farmers cultivated the heartier “six-row” variety—which is higher in protein—for animal feed. No commercial operation had grown the “two-row” variety until Texas A&M AgriLife took on Ade’s challenge. Cobb has done a great deal of research about the new crop as well as learned by trial and error.

Barley typically thrives in a cooler climate where it’s planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. To accommodate the Texas heat, Cobb and the other farmers shifted the planting to late fall and let the grain grow over the winter for a spring harvest.

Brew Your Own Magazine (byo.com) advises home gardeners to plant at least a 10-by-10-foot plot, which yields up to 15 pounds of grain, enough for a home-malting experiment.

What We're Cooking

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