Drinkers perched at the bar of The Rake on Alameda Point are privy to a sight that hasn’t been witnessed in California since Prohibition. The window behind the bar looks onto a slate-gray floor covered with light-brown colored kernels of germinating grain. The aroma is intoxicating.
The Rake is the taproom at Admiral Maltings, the first floor-malting operation in California in a century and the state’s first commercial maltster of any kind since 1981.
Admiral is the brainchild of San Francisco brewers Ron Silberstein and Dave McLean, along with Curtis Davenport. Some years ago, Davenport hoped to grow barley for Silberstein’s Thirsty Bear Brewery. Instead, he’s malting it.
All of the malt that Admiral produces comes from grain grown in the Sacramento Valley. After being cleaned and sorted, the grain is steeped in a vat like a huge pot of tea. When sprouts begin to form, the grain is spread onto the malting floor where it germinates, forming the sugars that yeast will consume and convert into alcohol during brewing. The grain is then dried and heated in a large kiln. Lighter malts for pale ales and pilsners spend less time in the kiln than the darker malts that end up in roasty-tasting ambers, stouts, and porters, and darker German lagers.
Most of the malted barley used to brew beer in the United States comes from commercial maltsters in Washington, Idaho, and Canada. Germany and England also malt barley, and some of them, like Maris Otter, are legendary beer-brewing malts.
“I’ve always wished I could get high-quality, flavorful base malt that was on a par with Maris Otter and the English and German malts that I was using, that was grown locally,” McLean said.
At Thirsty Bear, Silberstein was also frustrated by the absence of locally malted grain. In 2010, Silberstein even arranged to have organically grown California barley shipped by rail to a Colorado maltster, and then back to San Francisco. “That was our first locavore ale,” Silberstein said. “It proved the concept that high-quality organic malting barley could be grown in the Sacramento Valley and it could make really good malt.”
Admiral’s initial challenge was to find a source for malting-quality barley and other grains. “Within the past 50 years, very little grain has been grown in the Sacramento Valley because irrigation has been plentiful and cheap,” Silberstein said. But drought conditions could change that, and barley is a drought-tolerant crop that can be dry-farmed. Farmers are currently growing Admiral’s barley in rotation with rice, Silberstein said. Admiral is an environmentally conscientious company that requires certified organic growing methods, or “no-till,” in which a farmer uses the previous year’s harvest residue rather than plowing and re-tilling.
“The reality is, it’s more difficult to grow malting-quality barley,” Silberstein said. Admiral learned that working directly with farmers could be problematic. “If there’s too much protein, pre-harvest germination, or too many skinned and broken kernels, ergot (a fungus), or weed seeds, the lot gets rejected,” Silberstein said. Instead, Admiral works through Adams Grain in Woodland, which cleans, stores, and ships the grain.
Brewers and craft beer drinkers obsess over hop varieties while base malt for the most part has been given short shrift. “Hops are the spice of beer and it does wonderful things, but it’s not the heart and soul of beer. No malt, no beer,” Silberstein added.
Silberstein believes that Admiral’s malts are a cut above commodity malts. The varieties of barley being grown, their unique terroir, and the fact that it’s sustainably farmed, combined with Admiral’s floor malting and kilning processes result in superior malt, he said. “The most important quality is the flavor. You’re going to get a fresher, higher-quality product with more aromatics and more backbone in it.”
From the outset, Admiral understood that it couldn’t compete with commodity malt on price. A batch of 7 percent abv beer from a 15-barrel system with 1,000 pounds of malt will cost about 12 to 13 cents more per pint, Silberstein said.
Is the flavor tradeoff worth the extra expense? The Rake features a couple of dozen beers brewed using Admiral’s malt. I think there’s a discernable level of freshness and flavor, but check them out for yourself.
You’ll also have an opportunity to learn more about Admiral malts and sample beers made using their malts during Beer Week.
Beer Is Agriculture: A Grain to Glass Tour, Tasting and Discussion
Saturday, Feb. 9, 1:30-4 p.m., Almanac Alameda Brewery & Barrel House, 651B W. Tower Ave., Alameda.
Bay Area Brewers Guild SFBW Collaboration Beer Showcase
Visit The Rake at Admiral Maltings throughout SF Beer Week to try all five Bay Area Brewers Guild regional collaboration beers, all of which were brewed with Admiral Maltings malt.
The Rake, 651A W. Tower Ave., Alameda