Craft Beer Has a Secret Ingredient For Indiana Fans – And It Has Its Own Guild

Craft Beer Has a Secret Ingredient For Indiana Fans – And It Has Its Own Guild

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

We recently talked about the importance of knowing the origins of the ingredients in your craft beer (link here), and we hinted that we would have more to say about the growth of craft malting in brewing and distilling – well, this is it. I recently had nice talks with Jesse Bussard, the Executive Director of the Craft Maltsters Guild, and Caleb Michalke, the owner of Sugar Creek Malt Co. in Lebanon.

Malt is one of the four ingredients of beer. Derived from grain, the process of malting is designed to increase the sugar content of the grain and to change the chemical form of the sugars so they are most accessible for brewing. Like brewing, malting is part science and part art, and those people who have earned the right to be called maltsters are highly educated and motivated to provide a quality product to beer brewers and artisan distillers.

Jesse told me that there was a significant increase in the number of small malting operations in North America in the last 10-12 years, so much so that it became evident that there needed to be a central location to help maltsters and potential maltsters with questions, connections, information, promotion, and lobbying. In 2013, this need was translated into the Craft Maltsters Guild, and in 2019 they hired their current Executive Director, Jesse.

While the pandemic stalled the opening of additional malting operations, Jesse said that, “ The pandemic didn’t stop the increased interest and use of craft malt in the brewing and distilling worlds – it seems that craft malt is definitely ‘having a moment’ right now.” It is her goal with the Guild to grow that moment into a movement. There are now 70+ craft maltsters in the US and Canada, and the growth is now picking up again in terms of openings and production. What’s more, more than 75% of those maltsters are members of the Guild, working together to spread the word about the unique features of this product.

The Guild prides itself, and holds it members accountable, in being about quality not quantity. The definition of a craft maltster is similar to that of being an independent brewer, in that 1) they must produce between 5 and 10,000 metric tons of malt/year, 2) 50% of the grain they malt must be grown with 500 miles of the maltster, and 3) they must be at least 76% independently owned. Below five metric tons really equates to being a home brewer, and being within 500 miles of your source grain increases the quality of the product and helps to build the relationships between growers and maltsters.

Just who are these maltsters and where are they working? Jesse told me that their members really fall into about three categories, 1) farmers who see added value in producing malt from their barley/grain crop, 2) entrepreneurs who noted the opportunity to move into this niche market, and 3) breweries and distilleries that produce grain themselves.

Jesse clued me in to the recent trend toward making American single malt whiskeys, which is one of the reasons that it is distilleries more often than breweries that look to malt their own grains for a very personal single malt product. The TTB (federal division which oversees alcohol law) is currently debating the definition and parameters of what an American single malt might be. Jesse stated that the Guild currently has just one member that is a brewery which produces its own malt, but there are a few distilleries that make malt.

The vast majority of malted grain for beer and spirits is barley, and malting quality barley doesn’t grow well just anywhere. Because of this, and because of the condition that a craft maltster must be within 500 miles of 50% of its source grain, there aren’t any craft maltsters in Florida right now, but Jesse told me that people in Alabama and Mississippi are seriously looking into the idea of trying it out in those states. Lucky for Indiana, we have Caleb Michalke and Sugar Creek Malt Co.

Caleb told me, “My wife and I came back to the family farm in 2014 with the intent of starting a malthouse alongside the farming my dad was already doing. In 2015 we malted our first batch using one steep tank and germination floor.” Since then, they have added a product or technique each year, from cold smoking to roasting to producing wind malts and growing specialty grains and bringing back old barley varieties.

There is a difference between malting and roasting, and few maltsters also do roasting or produce specialty grains. The majority of beer is made from base malts, where the grain is wetted, sprouted, and then slowly dried. This produces lots of fermentable sugars. When you roast those malts, you use much higher temperatures to produce added flavors – but it does destroy the fermentable sugar. Caleb said, “We saw a need for high quality freshly roasted grains and wanted to offer that to our customers. I am extremely proud of the flavor and color that comes from our roasted malts and it really makes a difference using a fresher roast that hasn’t been sitting in a warehouse for months and months.”

Caleb told me that when he was learning his craft, he looked for people to teach him. “When we were trying to learn about malting, we traveled around the east coast and met with many of the founding members of the Guild. It was a small community back then, it still is, but back then it was I think less than 15 malthouses in North America. It has been great being a part of the Guild to gain knowledge and experience from others, build relationships with other craft maltsters, and the malt lab which the Guild helped organize was a game changer for us.”

And this points out just a couple of the functions of the Guild. Jesse enumerated the goals of the Guild as four, 1) promotion of craft malts as important for brewing, distilling and agriculture in general, 2) networking and making connections between maltsters, growers, brewers, distillers, governmental agencies, and commercial interests around brewed alcohol, 3) lobbying efforts in conjunction with other guilds and pertinent associations, and importantly 4) education of maltsters, breweries, distilleries, and even consumers, through classes, events, social media, and the Certified Seal Program.

Indiana craft breweries and distilleries, I’m now speaking to you – look into joining the Certified Seal program. You can be part of the craft malt explosion and help to create conversations with your patrons by becoming a member of the Craft Maltsters Guild and then using craft malts in your beer/spirits. By doing so, you are eligible to use the Craft Maltsters Guild trademarked seal (see image) to show people that you are using certified craft malt in one or more of your products.

To be eligible to use the Certified Seal on your menu boards, bottles, and cans, you must join the Guild ($150 annually), and enter into an agreement with a Craft Maltsters Guild member to use at least 10% craft malt in a single product or company wide. So many breweries in Indiana have shown a real awareness of locality by making beers with Indiana hops and malts, it is surprising to me that as of now, there are no breweries in Indiana using the Certified Seal. I think we can rectify that situation. Caleb has been such an innovator and proponent of craft in malting that it is a no-brainer to advertise to your patrons that you are using a local, quality product.

There’s much to be gleaned from the above discussions with Caleb and Jesse, including the impact and future of Sugar Creek as part of the Guild, “This year we are beginning a malthouse expansion that will allow us to grow our production output substantially over the next few years. The next 2-3 years are going to be really fun and a ton of changes and new ventures for us and the malthouse. People should keep up to date with what we are doing by following us on Instagram and Facebook. We have a lot of plans to get finished!”

Hopefully, your big takeaways are these: 1) craft malt is the current/next big thing and it’s going to change your beer experience, 2) there is a guild that is looking out to make craft malt all it can be, for the brewing/distilling industries and for you, and 3) Indiana craft breweries and distilleries need to join the Certified Seal Program and show their support for craft malt, while at the same time creating a conversation about it with the Indiana craft beverage fan.

Don’t forget about the Advanced Class in Craft Malt Production at the University of Southern Illinois from May 16-19 (register here).

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