In our IPA-centric universe, hops are like superheroes. Simcoe, Citra, Amarillo, Mosaic, and so on. Beer geeks know all the names and can rattle off the flavors and aromas imparted by each. But if hops are the quarterbacks, then grains are the offensive linemen. For each pound of hops, brewers use an exponential amount of grain. An IPA recipe might call for 30 pounds of hops and 1,000 pounds of malted barley. Hops are the haircut and the clothes, but barley is the backbone and the muscle.
While Washington farmers produce over 70 percent of the annual hop crop, just a small portion of the nation’s barley supply comes from Washington, and that comes from extremely eastern Washington. Most of the barley grown in the USA comes from Montana, North Dakota, and Idaho. A fair bit of the barley used by American brewers comes from Europe. At least that’s what I understand. I don’t proclaim to be a barley expert. Like the rest of you, I have trouble seeing beyond the glittering allure of the hops.
Barley talk is probably more interesting to brewers than it is to beer drinkers, but understanding a little bit about what goes into the beer makes it taste better. At least that’s what I believe and that is one of the foundations upon which this blog is built. In general, barley is produced on a very large scale. It is grown on huge, expansive farms and is then malted in large malting facilities. Like most things, barley is influenced by where it is grown. Barley grown in Montana will be different from barley grown in Western Europe. Some regions are better suited than others for the mass production of barley. Western Washington is not typically thought of as a great place to farm barley. Or is it?
Any beer you drink around here uses malted barley provided by one of a handful of producers. Speaking figuratively, many of our beers are built on a common foundation. Once again, I don’t proclaim to be an expert and am much better versed and hop-focused conversation, but that’s what I understand.
Here’s the news. Today some barley is being grown and malted in the Skagit Valley. This is interesting news and represents a noteworthy development in the world of craft beer and craft spirits, which also depends heavily on malted barley. Producing on a small-scale in an nontraditional location is not exactly unique, but it certainly is interesting. Why would you do it? What’s the point? Why is this news?
I want to share some information about Skagit Valley Malting Company that the Washington State University Mount Vernon Research Center shared with me. The following comes directly from Washington State University.
Terroir at the bar: Discovering western Washington grains in a glass
Demand for locally grown beer and booze has set the stage for craft brewing and distilling industries to capitalize on the flavors of western Washington wheat and barley.
“If you come to Skagit Valley to look at the tulips, you probably don’t notice that there are 15,000 acres of wheat and barley,” said Stephen Jones, wheat breeder and director of the Washington State University Mount Vernon Research Center. The grains are important rotation crops for maintaining soil health when grown between cycles of the vegetables and flowers that are the bread and butter of valley farmers.
The grains also embody the region’s terroir – flavors that reflect the unique soil, water and climate of a place. This has proven a revelation to farmers, chefs, millers, artisan bakers and craft brewers and distillers who, along with Jones, hope to usher in a renaissance of grain in western Washington.
The annual Cascadia Grains Conference (http://cascadiagrains.com) this weekend [actually, it was last weekend] will bring together farmers, processors and end-users – as well as investors, brokers and local government officials – to support rebuilding a grain economy west of the Cascade Mountains.
The heart and soul of beer
While the bread lab at WSU Mount Vernon recently has enjoyed the limelight among chefs and bakers nationally and internationally, craft brewers and distillers also are paying close attention to WSU’s research with grains grown in the region.
“Malted barley is the heart and soul of beer. So a prayer was answered when the Skagit Valley Malting Company was conceived – a local malting company geared for craft brewing,” said Charles Finkel, founder and owner of Pike Place Brewing Company, one of the first five microbreweries established in Washington in the late 1980s.
Cool nights, long summer days and rain mean that grains grown in western Washington don’t experience drought stress and therefore have a low protein content, said malting company co-founder Wayne Carpenter.
“This is wonderful for distilling and brewing,” he said. “Low protein grain can only be grown in six places in the world. One of them is here.”
Craft brewing has grown into an estimated $440 million (in 2012) industry in the state. Carpenter and Jones estimate the Skagit Valley could support double the grain that grows there now.
Skagit Valley Malting Company’s 11,000-square-foot malting facility, located just down the road from the WSU research center, is scheduled to come on line this year. It is designed to produce 2,500 to 3,000 tons per year of finished malt. This may sound like a lot, but according to Carpenter it would serve only 5 percent of the microbreweries in the state.
Meanwhile, total sales for the nascent craft distilling industry are estimated to be $9.2 million since 2011, when the Washington State Liquor Control Board began recording sales data.
The state allows small batch distilling (up to 60,000 gallons a year) and requires that 50 percent of the raw ingredients be grown in Washington, a rule intended to benefit farmers and the state economy.
Spirits of experimentation
The family-owned Westland Distillery in Seattle is the first single malt whiskey distillery in Washington and the largest in North America, producing 1,200 liters daily, six days a week.
President and co-founder Emerson Lamb said it is important that his product reflect its place of origin: “That’s why we’re really excited to work with Skagit Valley Malting. We can be hyper-local with flavor.”
Roasting and kilning the grain in the malting process is what creates the palette of flavors a distiller can work with, Lamb said. But climate and grain variety affect kernel size and husk thickness, he said, and these contribute to flavor in whiskey.
As a small distiller, Lamb has the flexibility to produce single batch, single varietal or even single farm whiskeys. He embraces a spirit of experimentation and is grateful to find that same spirit at WSU Mount Vernon.
“We see science and academia pushing the envelope in terms quality and consistency,” he said. “What’s so exciting about that is that whiskey is ready for it.”
Jones and his research team are using traditional breeding methods to develop and test contemporary and historic varieties of wheat, barley and oats. They are developing grain varieties that are not only suited to the maritime climate of the Skagit River delta, but that offer unique qualities that commodity grain production has left behind.
“It’s changing the way we look at grains here in the valley,” said Dave Hedlin, an organic and conventional vegetable grower in La Conner, Wash. “Now it’s, ‘How can you grow it, organically or conventionally, to get these attributes that are desirable?’ ” He said he is thrilled to have more market options for his grain crops.
Jones and Carpenter envision a western Washington grain economy that offers more options for everyone. With a strong desire to create market alternatives that are tied to place, the components are lining up – research to produce and test grains that farmers can grow for added value, more varieties brewers and distillers can select for custom malting, passionate entrepreneurs along the supply chain and the resulting libations that impart local flavor and pride of place.
When a draft beer system is delivering too much foam at the tap, bartenders typically pour off that excess foam into the drip tray or let the faucet run until the excess foam clears. In either event, that beer foam poured down the drain can represent as much a 25% to 30% waste. When one considers that a keg contains approximately 125 glasses of beer, that wasted foam represents 31 or more glasses of beer. Doing the math leads you to the conclusion that at $5 per glass, you are losing $155 profit per keg. When you add up the number of kegs you buy each week, month, and year, the lost profit can be staggering. An optimally maintained draft beer system can help reduce that waste considerably. For example, if that 25% to 30% waste was reduced to 10%, the additional profit could amount to $90 more per keg. Higher efficiency and higher profits are possible.
Uncovering the Science of Draft Beer, from Proper Glassware to Cleaning TechniquesDraft beer is the brewers’ gold,” a bar owner once told me, meaning draft beer — unpasteurized, shipped cold and served cold — was the closest thing you could get to beer right from a brewery’s tanks. Well-kept draft beer, served cold and fresh, is the backbone of a successful beer program. You need to protect your draft beer from things that will tarnish that brewers’ gold.
The first part of a good draft program is the most basic: learning to pour. It starts with the glassware. Whatever you use, the glasses should be “beer clean,” not touched by soap, which will kill the foam. Use a glass detergent, a rinse agent and lots of rinse water. You may want to rinse each glass with a cold water spray (the Spulboy washer is great for this); this makes a good pour even easier.
Now take the tap handle: Grasp it at the bottom, not the top, and you’ll have more control (some long handles can give enough leverage to snap the shank if you pull from the top). Open the tap all the way in one smooth motion, not a jerk, and close it the same way. This allows the beer to flow at the set volume, and it doesn’t constrict the flow, which causes the beer to foam.
Train servers not to do the “waste pour,” where they open the tap before they put the glass under the stream of beer. It’s wasteful, it takes extra time, and it’s not necessary; it’s just a bad habit. Experienced bartenders may do it as well, and you’ll have to convince them to change.
Don’t put the nozzle against the glass; it shouldn’t touch the beer. It may be faster — you can pour two beers at once that way — but it’s not sanitary and it can cause glass chips and breaks. Open the tap with the glass tilted about 30 degrees, and as the beer comes to the top, smoothly tilt the glass upright and finish with an inch of foam. Foam looks good, releases aromatics, keeps beer from spilling on the way to the table and is profitable, as foam is only 25 percent beer.
So now you have a good beer in a clean glass. Finish it by presenting it to the customer. I don’t like napkins, but I do like a coaster. Just placing the glass on the bar leads to liquid — condensation or spilled beer — on the bar, which is an unnecessary mess.
If you’re pouring and the keg empties, the server should know what to do, but don’t just assume they know how to change a keg. Train them on how to find the right keg in your coldbox (which means it’s a good idea to label or number your draft lines at both ends), disconnect the old one and put it aside for return and connect the fresh one.
If you’re using FOBs (see sidebar), reset the FOB. That’s about it for basic knowledge on serving draft; what’s next is what to do when things go wrong.
First, Do No Harm
Every bartender should know when there’s a problem beyond an empty keg; almost every problem will present as foaming. But you must have someone at your operation who knows how to fix these common problems. Ideally, you’ll have an expert who can then train at least one backup person.
“We have designated people that I’ve trained for small emergencies,” explains Casey Hard, manager at Max’s Taphouse in Baltimore where he oversees 144 taps, ranging from Miller Lite to vintage kegs of Cantillon Lou Pepe lambic. “If I’m there, I do it, and I trained three or four people to do some easy [repairs]. You need to train someone in the terminology, and then create a checklist of things. If you go through the checklist and it’s not fixed, shut it down and call the expert.”
Indeed, if working through the checklist doesn’t work the magic, an expert is the only person you want handling the problem … you want everyone else to leave it alone. When beer isn’t pouring right, it’s almost always a problem with temperature or the actual keg, yet the layman’s first reaction is to change the gas pressure. That’s the first rule of fixing draft problems: If you don’t know what’s going on, don’t touch it.
Hot and Cold
The problem usually is not the keg itself. Often the problem is temperature; either your line or the keg is too warm. (That’s why Hard keeps all his kegs refrigerated from the time they’re delivered.) When beer warms up, even by a few degrees, gas will break out of the solution and create foam in your lines. That means wasted beer and wasted money, pouring foam down the drain (25 percent beer, remember) and taking way too long to pour one glass.
Ensuring consistent temperature — about 38 degrees Fahrenheit — from the keg to the glass is a key to good draft dispense. Whether you use forced air or a glycol system to achieve it, you must maintain and check that system.
Temperature is important in another place: your glassware. You’ve probably heard the arguments for and against chilled glasses, and it’s simple: If you have frosty glasses, your beer will be watered down and foamy. But you don’t want to serve beer in glasses just out of the dishwasher; hot glasses, even warm glasses, will make foam break right out of the beer and make a good pour very difficult. To frost or not to frost, that’s a choice you have to make, but ensuring glasses are not warm is an absolute must.
Keeping it Clean
Just as important as correct temperature and pressure is cleanliness. Your draft lines should be cleaned every two weeks — more, if required by law — and that means you’re either using a service or buying your own equipment. Either way, you should learn what’s going on so you know it’s being done right. You’ll want to brush-clean all the taps, too. Cleaning’s also a great time to check valves, lines, seals and clamps for leaks and cracks.
Cleaning lines means losing the beer that’s in the lines, but that’s part of the cost of business. If you don’t clean, you’ll have beerstone, bacterial growth and foul-tasting, foamy draft beer, which will cost you much more in lost sales. Clean, fresh draft should be a selling point for your operation.
“We clean our taps every time we change a keg,” Hard says. “Not when it’s the same brands, but if a new beer comes on, we flush the whole line.” That’s on top of the two-week cleaning cycle; if you want to be a beer bar, he notes, that’s just part of the process.
The last step? Quality control. “I taste every beer when I tap it,” Hard says without any irony, “and I date my kegs. I don’t keep anything on more than a month, and 98 percent of the time, that never happens. If a customer says a beer’s bad, and it is, I take it off right then.”
Keep the lines, taps and glasses clean. Pour smoothly without touching the nozzle to the beer, with an inch of head, and don’t waste beer. Fix it if you can, but know when to call for help. Just do that, and you’ll be serving brewers’ gold. NCB
Walk the Talk Here is a primer on terms and things you need to know about your draft system.
• Beer gas – A blend of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, used for nitro-dispense beers (like Guinness) and for pushing beer through long runs without over-carbonating it.
• Beerstone – Mineral deposit (calcium oxalate) that can occur in draft lines and spigots; creates turbulence and harbors microorganisms.
• Blender – A device that mixes beer gas on-site from bulk tanks and accurately delivers proper pressures, reducing waste from foaming.
• CO2/Carbon Dioxide – Beer’s “normal” gas, used to push beer through short lines and keep the beer carbonated.
• Flowmeter – Measuring device connected to draft lines to track amount of beer dispensed (and accounted for in sales).
• FOB – “Foam On Beer,” a float valve that shuts off a draft line when a keg empties, leaving the line full of beer. FOBs save beer and profits.
• Forced Air Cooling – Chilled air from the cold box forced through short- to medium-length draft lines to chill the lines.
• Glycol – Refrigerating liquid used in recirculating systems to chill long draft lines and towers.
• Lift – The vertical distance between the keg and the tap, used to calculate pressures.
• Nitrogen – Gas used mainly to push beer through long lines; nitrogen will not readily dissolve in beer, and so will push without creating a “Guinness effect.”
• Pump – Compressed gas-driven pumps are an alternative to gas pressure to push beer through long lines.
• Regulator – Valve to set and change gas pressure in a line or the whole system. Crucial to successful draft dispense.
• Run – The horizontal distance between the keg and the tap, used to calculate pressures.
• Spigot – The actual mechanism of the tap.
• Tower – A freestanding single tap or collection of taps, usually chilled by glycol or forced air.
R Michael Gruber