As craft beer continues its inexorable rise, it's bringing benefits beyond the brewers who make it, the retailers who sell it and the drinkers who enjoy it. In the past few months, we've told the stories of many spin off businesses that have arisen on the back of the industry's growth: small hop growers, tap handle sculptors and so on.
We've also touched upon people looking to start small maltings: one in country New South Wales, another in Launceston. And now there is Al Turnbull, the owner and head brewer at Lobethal Bierhaus. Having built a successful brewery and venue in the Adelaide, he is exploring the world of in-house malting in the hope that will help him brew better beer while making history in South Australia at the same time.
After more than eight years of planning, countless hours researching and more than $100,000 of investment, Al can finally claim to be the first craft brewery in the state to malt his own barley on a commercial scale.
It's a journey that started even before Lobethal Bierhaus opened, back at the 2006 IBD (Institute of Brewing & Distilling) conference in Tasmania. At the conference, Al got chatting to a representative from one of Germany’s largest malting equipment producers. Ideas were thrown back and forth before Al said to him: “One day I am going to buy one of your malting plants.”
He soon discovered, however, that to buy malting equipment from Germany would be beyond his budget. But, still wanting to keep his dream alive, he went back to the drawing board and began researching a cheaper, more cost effective route.
This led him to the North American Craft Maltsters Guild, of which he is now a member. Through multiple tutorial videos and informative articles, as well as some considerable assistance from Dr Doug Stewart, the Quality Manager at Coopers with a considerable history as a local maltster, Al slowly but surely began to piece together the puzzle.
The result is now operational and is his interpretation of a malting system, drawn from what he's learnt from years of brewing, from others already in the industry and, more generally, from the internet. The main vessel used to germinate the grain is a modified lauter tun [a stainless steel vessel used in the brewing process] that has additional plumbing for aeration, custom made internal paddles and an auger to turn the grain. The way the system has been developed, it gives him tight control over temperature and aeration so he can malt pretty much any variety of grain he wants.
A large, commercial malting company might have three dedicated tanks to complete the three core stages of malting (steeping, germinating and kilning). Here, however, Al is doing the entire process in just one.
“In additional to base malts, such as ale and pilsner, the system is capable of producing specialty malts such as crystal and Munich where the kilning temperatures are higher,” says Al.
The process starts with a set of vibrating sieves: 5mm gaps in the top screen; 2mm on the bottom screen. Any grain that is too small, as well as dust and other unwanted items, is separated out and only the grain of the size Al wants to germinate will be used.
This grain is then moved via a grain auger into the malting tank. The first step is to steep the barley to lift its moisture content from about five percent to around 45 percent, which is done over a couple of days. This step involves flooding the tank, emptying it, then flooding it again while bubbling air through the grain the whole time. Once the grain has reached the correct moisture content the germination process can now begin.
The barley is now held at an ideal temperature for a time period that will allow the exact amount of growth to occur, depending on the type of grain Al is using and the style of malt he wants to produce at the end of the process. The grain is periodically turned during germination by paddles and the auger located inside the malting vessel. From start to finish, the germination process takes approximately four to five days. Once germination is complete, warm air is then used to kiln and dry the malted grain.
The grain to be used at Lobethal will come from all over South Australia (with an emphasis on local) with Al initially buying raw grain in up to 1,000kg bags and with future plans to set up a grain silo at the brewery. The idea is to purchase the grain locally and then introduce the farmer and the grain’s story to the drinker. He says the system has the ability to malt a tonne of raw grain per week, enabling him to become almost totally self sufficient with regards to malt if he chooses.
The flexibility in his hands has him excited about the prospect of using older, less common grain varieties and experimental varieties as well as those that are commonly used in brewing.
“If I want to make a full flavour low alcohol beer, for instance, I can make a malt that has a tendency to be less fermentable,” he says.
By branching out and malting its own barley, Lobethal Bierhaus’ intention is not to become a commercial maltster but instead to create better beer for its customers while also opening up the possibility of creating genuinely unique brews.
It means that, a decade after the idea was first sparked in Tasmania, Al will have a remarkable level of control over what goes into his beer and, along the way, he's creating a little bit of history as the first South Australian microbrewery to produce its own malt.
The first beers to use Al's own malt will be versions of his existing beers.