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!