The Sugar Creek Malt Co. Open House Opened Our Eyes

The Sugar Creek Malt Co. Open House Opened Our Eyes

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Farming is a lot like craft beer. It’s part science and part art, with the added difficulty that a lot of your success is dependent on things you can’t control – like the weather. Imagine if the quality of a brewery’s beer depended on what color shoes the first patron was wearing each month. It’s a completely random aspect; but so much of what farmers do is just as much out of their hands.

For most farmers, the routine is to prep the land as best you can, plant the crop, grow and harvest the crop, and hope that everything cooperated to give you good quality and yield. It’s back breaking work that requires you to be a jack-of-all-trades, from mechanical engineer to botanist. But how about adding biochemist, historian, culinary expert, and systems engineer? Now your getting into the realm of a family farm that also malts and smokes grains for craft beverages. That describes Sugar Creek Malt Co. and the Michalke family and employees – it’s a more of a constant challenge than a job.

For the vast majority of the year, the Sugar Creek Malt Co. toils away in relative anonymity; we drink beer and sometimes we find out that a certain beer was made with grains grown and/or prepared by Sugar Creek – but what does that really mean? It’s great to support local, but the people who really appreciate the work they do are the brewers, getting a quality product with more variety than anywhere else, and being able to communicate with the people providing that product. Luckily, the veil is pulled back from malting once a year so that people in and around the industry can be invited in to see just what goes into producing world-class malt for beer and spirits.

There is a story to the logo too. We’ll get to that in a coming article. image credit: Sugar Creek Malt Co.

Walter, Lil’ Walter, and I were privileged to attend the recent Sugar Creek Malt Co. open house at the malting facility where we learned a lot, laughed a lot, pet a goat, ate some great food, and drank a myriad of beers and spirits made with Sugar Creek malts and grains. It was a wonderful afternoon and evening, and now I will try to help craft beer fans understand how difficult and rewarding this work is. Sugar Creek is working hard to make sure that your brewers have the best ingredients so that they can make you the best beers.

The Grain and Malt. Of the four ingredients in beer (malted grain, yeast, water, hops) malted grain may be the one people know the least about. The “grain” part isn’t a problem, although few people can probably pick out barley from a group of grains. But it isn’t just the grain that goes into the beer, it’s most often grain that has been coaxed into becoming a beer/spirits ingredient through the process of malting.

Grains are small, dry seeds that may or may not have an attached hull as an outer layer. Examples include all the grains used for brewing and distilling plus a few extras (barley, corn/maize, wheat, millet, oats, rice, rye, spelt, sorghum, fonio, teff, and triticale). Some grains can be used dried only, like wheat, rice or flaked maize or oats, but often they are malted – and that’s important. It’s infinitely harder make beer with just plain dried grains.

Since grains are seeds, and it is the biological drive of seeds to become plants, grains can be coaxed into beginning to grow (called germination, a good high school biology word). The major part of any grain seed is stored carbohydrate, the source of food for the germinating and growing plant until it can produce leaves and start to use photosynthesis to drive the building of it’s own sugars. But the stored sugars in the seed are in a form that is highly compacted and not freely available to breakdown (complex carbohydrates such as starch).

Caleb and Whitney talking to us about barley. Walter said they’re out standing in their field. image credit: Walter

By allowing the grains to germinate, they start to produce enzymes whose job it will be to break down the chains of sugars into small monomers that can then be used by the plant for energy. Coincidentally, yeast also need those complex sugars to be broken down in order to ferment them to alcohol, carbon dioxide and energy for themselves. Therefore, malting coaxes the plants into making the compounds we need for brewing.

When the malted barley (or other malted grain) is cracked open added to the mash tun and warmed in water, the enzymes begin their activity and metabolize the released sugars into glucose and other short sugars – this is the major constituent of wort and is the food for the yeast. Therefore, no malting…no beer – do you see the importance now?

The Farm. The Michalke family farm northwest of Lebanon, IN is where this malting magic takes place, on the order of a million pounds a year and growing. But this is a working farm as well. They grow crops, some of which might get malted if they are of sufficient quality – not just any grain is good enough for malting for beer/spirits. The farm has goats, chickens, cats, barns and all the things you might expect, but then there are some other buildings that are specific for processing the grain into malt – and one building that is like no other on this continent. More about that later.

The farmhouse is just off the road and is the hub of much of the daily activity, people are in and out all day getting something to eat, working on the computer, sleeping an hour or two a night, but there is also a dedicated office next to the malt house. Nothing is too far from the farmhouse, including the smoker, the drum kiln, the malthouse, an even the closest barley field.

The seed cleaner from 1947. image credit: Walter

Caleb showed us his field of barley just to the south of the malthouse and explained how this field would most certainly become animal feed this year, partly because of the weather. Indiana just isn’t a prime place to grow barley because of the heat and humidity. Winter barley (planted and harvested a few weeks earlier) may do better, but it is still susceptible to molds and growth limitation that can make it unusable for malting. This is why Sugar Creek partners with farms around Indiana and neighboring states to make sure that there is enough barley and other grains to meet the company’s needs.

Even the harvest can affect the quality of the grain. Caleb makes sure that the farmers know the best methods to store and ship him grain so that it has the best possibility of being good enough for malting. It must be stored cool and dry in the bins, and augured gently or not at all. Even on a good day 20% of the harvest is lost, so best practices are crucial to keep that number as low as possible.

The Open House. Of course, the first thing we did when we arrived for the open house was talk to the goats and try to coax them off their perches on the bales of hay and logs – no luck. We checked in and said hello to many of the brewers and others that had come out for the evening and overnight (several people camped on the farm with their families). Tom and Michele Bulington of Crasian Brewing in Brookston had their color coordinated camper and truck, while others did the tent camping thing and had fires late into the night.

To demonstrate the reach and quality of Sugar Creek malts, Caleb and Whitney had assembled over a hundred beers and spirits in growlers, bullets, bottles and cans from nearly four-dozen breweries and distilleries that use Sugar Creek grains/malts. In addition, there were several beers on draft that Caleb himself brewed using some of the test and core products from the malting company.

Supervisor Jaden Bailey showing us how to turn the malt. image credit: Walter

We sampled, ate a great dinner of smoked meats and sides, and talked about life in general and beer in specific. We listened to music and sat under the large tents when it decided to sprinkle for just a couple of minutes. We drank more beer and spirits – I loved everything from Cruz Blanca, White Rooster Farmhouse Brewing and Scratch Brewing in Illinois, but there were great local beers as well from two dozen Indiana breweries.

We spent hours sampling and talking. I’m going to be writing for months just based on the tips and information I learned from everyone there. Finally, it was time for Caleb to lose his voice giving multiple tours of the facility to groups of attendees.

The Tour and the Process. Caleb and Whitney took us through the process of malting, drying, kilning, and smoking various grains and malts – it’s complicated! First the grain is cleaned through the 1947 seed cleaner that removes chaff and other unwanted debris through a series of sized grates. The second step is to steep the grain in warm water to kick start the germination – but not too warm, not too cold, not too long, or not too short. It’s like Goldilocks and the three grains. You must have rests in the steeping or you will drown the grain (too little oxygen), and you need to stop it when the right enzyme combinations have been stimulated.

Next is reducing the level of water in the grain (to about 45%) and to bring the temperature down into the 60s for germinating. Too much moisture or too high temperature and you’ll grow molds and the crop is ruined. The grains are spread in boxes called germination floors, large shallow containers that have holes in the bottom to allow air to flow up through the grain. The germination takes place over four to six days, with a hand turning each day.

The drum roller kiln – this has been on fire before. image credit: Walter

This is where the plant starts to grow out of the seed (acrospire and rootlets) and the enzymes are produced. They have turn them each day or they will grow together and tangle, leaving a bulk mass that can’t be used for malting. Over the course of a week, they will pick up and move by hand about 150,000 lb.s of grain. When the temperature, time, and humidity tell them, they move the grain to the dryer where the moisture is removed and the toasting takes place to give the base malts some color and flavor.

The drying and toasting takes about 24 hours (18 for drying and six or so for toasting). The kiln can go up to only 250˚F and will put a bit of color and flavor on base malts like pilsner and pale malt.  Sugar Creek also have a rolling drum kiln on wheels that they can take places for demonstrations or to roast grains right at the brewery. This roaster goes up to much higher temperatures to give more color and roast to other malt types (caramalt, chocolate malt, etc). Sugar Creek Malt folks have to be there the entire time it roasts because sometimes it can be as short a time as a couple minutes that separate good malted grain from trash.

Finally, there is the cold smoke house to add more flavor to some malts/grains. This is a small closed barn with a single pipe communication to draw smoke in from the fire. They have over forty different woods, herbs, and peat to select from, making this one of the most dynamic malt houses in the country. At the time of the open house they were using cherry wood to smoke some malt. It smelled great.

The last part of the tour was devoted to the såinnhus, a traditional Norwegian malt house that produces malts with different qualities. Caleb built this on his own, is the only one in the western hemisphere, and is the second largest anywhere on Earth. In this technique, the grains are steeped in burlap bags, hung dry, and then germinated on the floor of the såinnhus (no perforated container to allow air to pass through).

The såinnhus drying floor. When I say nobody else in America makes malt this way, I mean it. image credit: Walter

The malt is dried either over a fire that filters up through slats of wood with thousands of hand drilled holes in them, or bagged and wind dried on the roof of the såinnhus It produces a very different kind of malt with grassier and more rustic flavors. It’s going to catch on, and brewers in Indiana are already looking to get their hands on some. This includes Josh Metcalf at Auburn Brewing and Josh Miller at Backstep Brewing, where he is licking his chops at using this traditional Norwegian malt with his traditional Norwegian kveik yeast strains.

Conclusion. Caleb and I talked in more depth about just how sensitive the grain production of enzymes are to variations in temperature and time in each of the stages. They have each batch tested in a laboratory, and they need the right amounts of amylases (alpha and beta) and the correct ratios of enzymes that act on sugars to those that work on proteins. The hundreds of compounds that contribute to flavors are hard to track, but the enzyme combinations help to predict flavors.

As with all things worth doing, there is more to malting grain than anybody else can know. Caleb says that Sugar Creek didn’t know what it was doing and is just learning via trial and error. I have to disagree; this is a well-run, knowledgeable company with a passion for producing the best malts anywhere, not just locally. I appreciated the open house and the chance to get their story out to the craft drinking public.

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