From Grass to Glass: What it Means to “Drink Local Beer”

Here at Armistice we have a well-documented obsession with hops, but we're equally in love with malt. We like it in all forms -- we even have a tradition of enjoying Midweek Malts every Wednesday in a sad but determined attempt to keep the Chocolate Malt alive in America. But we especially love it in beer. Malt is made by steeping barley in water, germinating it, drying it, and toasting or roasting it depending on the kind of malt you're making. It's really not all that dissimilar from your hippie housemate's sprouting projects. It's just a little cleaner. 

Malt is the backbone of beer. It provides the fermentable sugars that yeast convert into alcohol and CO2, it provides the beautiful color spectrum of beer, it provides the residual malt sweetness that balances out the bitterness of hops and roasted malts, it provides the mouthfeel and body of your beverage, it provides the proteins that make for a #greathead and foam retention, and it provides a sweeping variety of aromas and flavors that comprise the vocabulary for beer. Toasted bread, biscuits, crackers, coffee, hay, chocolate, toffee, figs, stone-fruit, smoke, caramel, nuts, raisins, and ash -- all these descriptors are driven by the grist bill (or the grain recipe), that is, by the base malt and specialty malt in beer. And all of these are derived from one humble grass: barley. 

From left to right: two-row base malt, crystal specialty malt, and roasted malt. 

From left to right: two-row base malt, crystal specialty malt, and roasted malt. 

Barley was one of the first grains to be domesticated in the Fertile Crescent during the Neolithic Revolution. We'll skip a few revolutions and jump to North America, when Colonists from England (in New England), France (in Canada) and Spain (in the south and on the West Coast) brought barley to North America for the purpose of brewing beer in the early seventeenth century. In fact, the very word colony points to the historical and etymological link between farming and imperialism, as it is derived from colonus "settler, farmer" from colere "to cultivate." Of course, indigenous people were fermenting their own fruit and grain beverages prior to the colonial encounter, and the post-colonial period would see the use of imported alcoholic beverages to destabilize native communities. 

By the 19th century, barley production in California had expanded with Anglo-American migration during the Gold Rush. It declined with Prohibition, and upon Repeal agriculture was quickly industrializing, which led to the consolidation of grain production in the hands of fewer and fewer growers who could afford to leverage economies of scale in the plains states and Canada. 

This map, sourced from The Atlantic, helpfully visualizes from where the ingredients in your "local" beer hail. 

This map, sourced from The Atlantic, helpfully visualizes from where the ingredients in your "local" beer hail. 

What does this mean for beer, and specifically for craft? Craft has only really been around since the 80s, and for the last few decades beer drinkers have used a very liberal definition of the term local to describe their products. Most of the barley is grown in the midwest and Canada and most of the hops are grown in Washington and Oregon; often the only truly local ingredient in beer is water. The food movement has offered a more compelling definition of local: just because a sandwich is made in the back doesn't mean it's local. The ingredients themselves need to be produced and processed locally. Until the recent interest in bringing back regional hop and barley cultivation, brewing a local beer was all but impossible.

Brewing a local beer would have been equally impossible without local processers to turn the raw barley into malt. The industrialization of agriculture also led to the consolidation of malt houses. Back in the day each town would have a maltster. Remember Sam Adams? Dude was a maltster – not a brewer. Now there are only a handful of big malting facilities in North America, and almost every beer you drink is made with the same barley. With more local agriculture and more local processors, we could very well see the beer flavor and style spectrum blown wide open by the new diversity in brewing ingredients.

Curtis shows Alex a handful of acrospires, which are the first sprouts that barley produces in the germination process. They are then removed using this de-acrospirer, or something. 

Curtis shows Alex a handful of acrospires, which are the first sprouts that barley produces in the germination process. They are then removed using this de-acrospirer, or something. 

Thanks to Curtis Davenport (whom we’ve been stalking since we were homebrewing in LA), Dave MacLean (who so generously let us pick his brain during the early stages of vision), and Ron Silberman who has been a pioneer in organic brewing in the Bay Area, we now have the ability to use locally grown and locally malted barley. Admiral Maltings, which opened earlier this year in Alameda, is combining the best of traditional floor malting practices with modern technology and innovation. We’ve been lucky enough to take a tour of their beautiful facility brew with two of their first batches of malt.

Alex "doughs in" -- the process of cracking the malt on its way to the mash tun where the complex starches will be converted into digestible sugars for the yeastie-beasties to nom on. 

Alex "doughs in" -- the process of cracking the malt on its way to the mash tun where the complex starches will be converted into digestible sugars for the yeastie-beasties to nom on. 

Currently we have a single-malt English golden ale on tap made exclusively with their Gallager’s Best, which was malted at Admiral from a barley that was developed Lynn Gallagher at UC Davis. This barley was bred for dry-farming in the Sacramento Valley, which is certainly the future of agriculture in California’s arid climate. The beer, Gallagher’s Gold, was designed to foreground the malt experience by keeping everything very simple. The grist bill is 100% Gallagher’s Best, which is redolent of toasted bread, hay, and honey. A vigorous boil creates adds an extra layer of kettle caramelization, which is typical of our malt-foreword English ales. English Kent Golding hops lend a slight herbal note to balance out the malt sweetness, and English ale yeast rounds out and accentuates the malt profile. The result is a lovely, refined English golden ale that manages to please both craft beer generalists and those who are interested in the art and science that infuses the entire supply chain.

Photo courtesy of @jonloving 

Photo courtesy of @jonloving 

Gallagher’s Gold hasn’t even been on for a week and we’ve already Lynn Gallagher (who developed the barley) and Curtis Davenport (who malted the barley) come in to try it. There is nothing better than proudly pouring a pint for the people that make these beers possible. Craft is a collaboration between farmers, breeders, maltsters, brewers, and consumers, and we couldn’t be more grateful to the folks who make that collaboration possible. Cheers!

Taproom Dream Sequence

Over the next few posts we want to dive into our vision for the main taproom, the upstairs framily room, and the outside beer garden. Let’s start with the taproom.

Entry to the taproom.

Entry to the taproom.

But before you walk in, twist the waxen tips of your petit handlebar mustache and push up the sleeves of your Cosby sweater. Ah, yes, this could be a hipster bar -- this could be your hipster bar, hipster-friend -- and they must know that you are nothing if not a well-groomed gentleman-scholar, or an artfully inked and certainly woke woman with heirloom vegetables in full-color on your full-sleeve. You live for first impressions, but you’re never impressed. And you won’t be: the first thing you notice upon entering are Edison bulbs casting a familiar, forgiving glow on your often furrowed brow.

And what do you spy under-Chukka? A concrete floor with a stain that suggests manufacturing. Of course. You look up to the ceiling through thick-rimmed, statement glasses and see, yes, the bones of an industrial past: exposed ducting and steal transverse beams, as if that chimera they call work happens or once happened here.

Ducts and exposed ceilings. Smells like ideology.

Ducts and exposed ceilings. Smells like ideology.

Yes hipster-friend, you have heard of this “work,” and you suspect that some simulacrum of it is responsible for the distressed wood on the bar and tabletops. Is that “reclaimed” barnwood? Or should you say Reclaimed Barnwood? Or maybe even “Reclaimed” “Barn” “Wood”? You could go on.

LEFT: Dog and her hipster in Cosby/Coogi/Biggie sweater. UPPER RIGHT: Hipster Ariel will sacrifice everything for her macro lager. LOWER RIGHT: Artful avo sleeve pairs well with $6 toast.

LEFT: Dog and her hipster in Cosby/Coogi/Biggie sweater. UPPER RIGHT: Hipster Ariel will sacrifice everything for her macro lager. LOWER RIGHT: Artful avo sleeve pairs well with $6 toast.

But we’ll cut you off right there because this isn’t a hipster bar. To the horror of hipsters everywhere, we won’t be serving craft cocktails with house-made bitters; we won't even have PBR. And kids are totally welcome here -- kids! Can you imagine!? Even worse: there’s not a hint of irony to be found. Yes, that’s right. You’ll have to deal with our naive (borderline sentimental!) authenticity at every turn.

See, we lack millennial nihilism; not only do we cling to the archaic and woefully uncool idea that values are worth having, but we also believe that we can articulate those values through mundane decisions. The filament bulbs are all LED, which makes us feel good (Feelings! Take that, hipsters!) about making a more sustainable choice (Hope for a better future! Hi-YA!).

[Ahhnold voice] "It's not a Chukka."

[Ahhnold voice] "It's not a Chukka."

The stained concrete came with the place, as did the ducts and beams, and since they (unlike us) ain’t broke, we ain’t fixing them. We believe (More beliefs! Roundhouse kick!) our taproom should speak to our sense of place. So we’re working with our neighbor, who happens to be one of the best green architects in California, to source local, sustainable hardwoods that have already been felled or slated for removal. You can call us tree-huggers, but we prefer Charismatic-Megaflora Enthusiasts.

The bar-top will be made from California live oak milled lengthwise with rustic, uneven edges because, you know, that’s less work for us. Most of the seating will be at large community tables built from lengthwise cuts of cedar and redwood. That’s right: community tables that encourage conversation among neighbors and strangers alike. If you’re really committed to performing your tortured isolation, we won’t take that away from you, but you might find yourself surprised by someone new. But you’re never surprised, hipster-friend. Now shield your eyes, lest they be wetted by impending pathos:

The #actualbarn whence we derived #actualbarnwood. Note the authentically janky cooler that we used as our chiller reservoir during our homebrewing days.

The #actualbarn whence we derived #actualbarnwood. Note the authentically janky cooler that we used as our chiller reservoir during our homebrewing days.

The Reclaimed Barnwood is the real deal, though we probably shouldn’t even call it that. It’s really Barnwood That Didn’t Get Dumped. Barnwood That Didn’t Get Dumped is so hot right now. See, when we moved back home to take care of our mom, we started to brew in the family barn. It was an upgrade from the crowded counter-tops of Gregory’s studio apartment, and over the course of that (frankly, really difficult) year, the barn became very special to us. It was a place to escape from the stresses of care-taking, to process our grief, and to reconnect over our shared hobby. After Mom passed, the barn was torn down, but we were able to salvage the wood and we can’t wait to bring a little bit of our family and brewing roots into the taproom. #sorrynotsorry for the #authentic #feelings, hipster-friend.

If you're vehemently anti-sports-ball and we happen to be watching the game, you can always hangout upstairs in the Framily Room or outside in the beer garden. We'll discuss our vision for those in future blog posts.

If you're vehemently anti-sports-ball and we happen to be watching the game, you can always hangout upstairs in the Framily Room or outside in the beer garden. We'll discuss our vision for those in future blog posts.

Unfortunately, hipster-friend, we actually enjoy the occasional sports game. Yes, we are suckers for camaraderie -- produced and commodified though it may be. We know there are a lot of problems with professional sports, but we still love the idea of excellence and sports is still a great place to see excellence on display. So while we won’t be running a sports bar, you can bet that we’ll have the local games on, and even the occasional Tottenham match. Don't worry, hipster-friend, we love you. We really love you. We even see a little of ourselves in you. A little. So you are most welcome here, but so is everybody else. Except for Arsenal fans. Just kidding. #COYS

NB: this blog post was not written on a typewriter