The Soul of Beer – 10/03/17

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Hi all, Andrew Dean here again—this month I’m talking about malt, fondly referred to by some as the soul of beer. According to the Institute of Brewing and Distilling the raw materials used in brewing are Yeast, Water, Hops, Cereals and Brewing Adjuncts. Malt is a cereal thats processed in the brewhouse to make wort, this provides the base of our beer before being seasoned with hops and “pitched” with a healthy yeast for a happy fermentation, converting sugar into alcohol, CO2 and flavour.

During seemingly endless studies to one day become a Head Brewer (the more I learn, the more there is to learn!), I explored the possibility of visiting a malting plant and seeing the process first hand. I got in touch with Roger Bussell, a retired brewer and maltster, still ever present in the industry, who Ken had the pleasure of working with, both having joined the Swan Brewery in 1979. Though I was initially introduced to Roger at a Perth Royal Beer Show Awards dinner a few years ago, I got to know him while volunteering for the Perth Royal Beer Show and more recently as an associate judge.

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Roger passed my name onto Michael Ryan, the Plant Manager of the Barrett Burston in Welshpool, who was more than happy to accomodate us for a tour, who incidentally I’d seen deliver a master class at the Fremantle Beer Festival last year. On the way Roger—a walking encyclopaedia of beer knowledge—regaled me with some brewery history such as when the Kalgoorlie Brewery closed in 1982. This left the Swan Brewery as the only one in the state until 1984 when Phil Sexton exited Swan and founded the Sail and Anchor, there are now around 60. Michael, and several others at Barrett Burston were also employed by the Swan Brewery at one point or another up until its closure in 2012. Roger was of course delighted to catch up with some familiar faces.

Barley for malting is cleaned for processing (removing undersize grains and foreign material), and goes onto the steeping tanks where it’s soaked in water (with aeration) and intermittently rested in air, over a period of 24 hours or more. Wetted barley is then moved to the germination beds where it’s allowed to grow over four days whilst being periodically turned to prevent grains from sticking together—suffocating or generating too much heat as it respires would yield uneven malt. Next it’s on to the two deck kiln, where the malt is dried over two days —grain characteristics are fixed, flavour and colour are developed, making it safe for storage and suitable for brewing.

The finished product is completely pale, what we call base malt—99% of which is destined for the international market, predominantly Asia. Funnily enough the Barrett Burston Maltings was originally built as a joint venture with Barrett Burston and Kirin in 1978 and then taken over outright by Kirin in 1982, purely for export back to Japan with nothing sold domestically for a long time. Though the Barrett Burston plant is old, it was equipped with some impressive technologies, from systems which could control processes from all over the plant or remotely from home, to the weigh bridge—outgoing malt is loaded into shipping containers by way of a conveyer that fills massive bags within. The bridge is essentially an enormous scale that can take the weight of a semi trailer.

A few weeks later was Joe White maltings, for my second trip I was joined by my friend and colleague Sabhan Rizzi. We kicked off with a trip to Roger Bussell’s via the brewery to can a Canimal of Beerland IPA to give to the Production Team Leader, Damien Morrison, as a thanks for the tour and his invaluable insights into the industry. The Joe White plant is adjacent to the CBH terminal in Forrestfield—a giant conveyer joins the two facilities bringing in fresh batches of raw barley daily, sourced from the Kwinana region.

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Two almost mirrored steeping plants house six tanks that each hold 50 to 60 tons of barley. After wetting and aeration, it’s shifted to enormous, circular, stainless steel germination tanks where a huge arm fitted with turners, drops and spreads each batch around, stirring periodically to keep consistently and forming patterns across the bed—reminding me of Japanese rock garden. After four days at controlled atmospheric conditions, sufficient modification has taken place and the green malt is transferred to kiln. When the process is complete a staggering 540 tons is conveyed back across the fence to CBH for dispatch, once again mostly large volumes for the Asian market.

Damien explained that for all the controls of the plant—which outside of daily hours run completely automated—you should always trust your nose. The maltsters talked as passionately about malt as brewers talk about beer, barley varieties, variability in harvest, frosts, rainfall, plump grains, skinny grains, protein content, enzymatic power and potential extract. For us, these were all hot topics, triggering question after question which Damien and Plant Manager Mitch Beazer fielded expertly.

I felt like a big kid visiting these places, watching grains roll around conveyors and processes carried out with the utmost efficiency was, though probably terribly dull for some, genuinely exciting to me. If it weren’t for the hard work here, we wouldn’t be able to make quality beer on the other end, and though I now understand a few more whys and hows, I still long to see and smell some specialty malt production one day.