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Malting the Grains of Maine

Joel Alex had a vision to connect Maine-grown grain directly to Maine’s brewers. His Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon Falls now prepares various grains for use in breweries. We recently went to their open house celebration to learn more about the unsung hero of beer.

It takes tons of grains to make beer. After water, grains are the most predominant ingredient in the beer making process. Specifically barley is used in massive quantities to make beer, with other grains (wheat, oats, rye, and others) playing a part as well.

So the good news is that in Maine barley is grown in great quantities.

Maine’s cool climate and uniform rainfall are well suited for good barley crops. Barley rapidly develops a wide root system, and requires a well-drained soil bed. In Aroostook County (and in other areas of Maine) the soil drains well enough to encourage healthy crops of barley.

Barley is grown in Maine primarily for livestock feed, and also malt production. In 2015, 12,000 acres of barley were harvested in the State of Maine.

But what about the bad news about Maine barley?

The bad news is that malting the grain hasn’t been happening in the state. The grains have been traditionally shipped out of state or into Canada to where large scale malt operations have made the grains ready for brewing. They often are bought right back by the nearly 70 breweries that dot our state, it is estimated that nearly 100 million pounds are imported into the state each year by breweries.

Now people like Joel Alex have closed this gap by opening malt operations within the state. In the case of Blue Ox Malthouse, their 7,500 square-foot location in Lisbon Falls is the end result of years of planning, testing, and fundraising.

They will be able to produce up to 500,000 pounds of malted grain a year, and with their opening they are instantly one the top 10 biggest malthouses in North America.

They recently had an open house and ribbon cutting ceremony, and we made sure to be part of the celebration. We reached out to Nathan Sanborn, co-founder and head brewer of Rising Tide Brewing Company, and he happily joined us on the trip to learn more about their operation. He even brought back a bag of Blue Ox malt to try out at their brewery.

Congratulations to Joel, Steve, David, and the entire Blue Ox Malthouse team for making this dream a reality for all of us!

Here are some pictures from the event, and if you want to know more about Blue Ox and the new malting industry in Maine check out this detailed Press Herald article.

And after, enjoy a little lesson about the malting process that happens here at Blue Ox Malthouse. Cheers!

What is Malting?

Those grains cannot be used in their raw state, they must be processed to get the starches ready to be converted into sugars (mostly maltose). This processing is called malting, which allows the grain to partially germinate and making the seed’s stored resources accessible to the brewer.

The recipe for the grains is what really determines the color, mouth feel, density, texture, and most of the actual flavor of the finished beer. The types and the quantities used are often described as the grain bill of a beer recipe.

In the malthouse, the raw grains are first steeped in water to allow the grains to absorb moisture and to start to sprout. The moisture content has to increase to 42% to 46% to allow the germination to begin.

Uniformity of the grain is what the maltster is looking for during germination. The barley grains should sprout at the same rate so when the time comes to end the germination phase in the kiln, every kernel will be consistent.

They are then spread out on a floor or on screens to dry. The drying is important, the water content needs to drop significantly to avoid spoilage. So the grains must be raked and turned over constantly over several days to allow air to pass over the grain bed and evaporation to occur. The goal is for a final moisture content in this phase to be between 10-12%.

The dried grains are roasted in a kiln to various degrees of darkness. Kind of like coffee, the darker the grains are roasted will result in different colors and flavors. This can range from very mild and sweet flavors right up to an intensity of bitter bakers chocolate.

The finished malted grain must be stored in a cool, dark, and dry place to keep the product stable and ready to be made into delicious craft beer.

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Don Littlefield is the Assistant Principal of The Maine Brew Bus. This past year he traveled to Asheville, NC and toured Riverbend Malt House to learn more about this process. That visit became a real highlight of the trip, and the Riverbend team helped the Blue Ox team get up and running. He is looking forward to enjoying several beers this afternoon. Twitter: @BeerinME