In the world of craft beer, hops are more often than not viewed as the rockstars, even if yeast has made the occasional pitch for preeminence in recent years. Often when drinkers discuss the nuances of styles and why they prefer one beer over another, the discussion will be centred around the hops involved, occasionally the yeast (and bacteria), but rarely the ingredient referred to as the backbone of beer.
Malted (and unmalted) grains of many forms contribute to beer's appearance, aroma, texture and flavour, and without them there would be no beer. Yet, other than the occasional mention – such as 48 seconds into this – while brewers acknowledge its importance, even among educated beer drinkers its vital role in every can, bottle, schooner or pint they've enjoyed is often forgotten or skimmed over.
The reality is that plenty of thought and consideration is applied to the makeup of grain bills, with brewers often looking for specific attributes to suit a particular style of beer – from diastatic power and starch content through to colour, flavour and aromatic properties. Further to this, quality and consistency is key to ensure brewers are able to achieve their intended outcome, especially when it comes to producing core range beers that are recognisably the same from one batch to the next.
These days, much like the market for hops, there are producers and growers looking at more conscious, creative and unique ways to grow and malt grain, particularly when their desired customers are craft brewers. Whether the discussion is around malt-centric styles, or those that seem less dependant on grain choice specificity, there is much to consider for those who grow, malt and brew with it, as well as for those who consume the resultant beers.
One such producer resides and operates in the small, rural, Western Australian town of Karranadgin – population 168 – located around 120 kilometres north of Perth. Here, a fifth-generation farmer is growing fully traceable, premium quality heritage barley for brewers and distillers, and malting it all on site.
Mortlock Malt is run by Rex Rowles (pictured above), who after studying brewing at ECU and gaining brewing experience at Little Creatures, decided to move back to his family farm to combine his love and knowledge for brewing with his experience growing barley. The result is the development of a facility dedicated to producing malts for brewers.
At Mortlock, Rex places an emphasis on sustainability and traceability, having a hand in all aspects of the production process; from the selection of niche, heritage barley and the sourcing of suitable pastures, right through to malting, packaging and distribution.
"The process starts on the farm," he says, "selecting varieties, paddocks and getting the best quality barley. We get our grain primarily from our own farm but we also contract malt for other farms and breweries.
"At Mortlock, each parcel of grain can be selected for uniformity and malting parameters not available to commercial maltsters."
Currently, distribution is limited but Rex is eager to see Mortlock grow. Expansion plans include a larger malting facility to be completed by 2022, which was well underway at time of writing. Gaining broader recognition within the brewing industry is also a big goal for an operation that sees value in a more curated offering of malt for craft brewers.
At time of writing, Rocky Ridge, Dandaring Brewery (in their startup phase) and Perth’s iconic Whipper Snapper Distillery (pictured below) are all using Mortlock products with good results, and further distribution is anticipated.
"Right now, at the pilot stage, we are doing base pilsner and ale malt from our own and other farmers' barley," Rex says. "The expansion of the malthouse will be completed in early 2022, then we’ll be able to produce a full range of base and specialty malts, along with other grains, wheat, rye and oats et cetera."
In an increasingly conscious beer world, where punters and brewers alike are concerned with quality, locality and ethics, Mortlock is on a mission to introduce a considered range of malts that brewers can utilise while also benefiting from a true "paddock to pint" ingredient they hope will elevate quality, without degrading the environment.
For more features in The Collaborators series, head here.