Making Malt Is Hard as Hell—This Brewery Did It Anyway

May 21, 2019

By Ivy Knight, May 21, 2019

Casey Holley was living in Lodi, California and about to turn 40. Thus far in his career, this Minnesota boy had worked as an IT consultant, a nuts and bolts salesman, and a bagel sandwich artist. Ready for a change, he took a look around and something stirred in him.  

“Living in wine country in Northern California, I was super inspired by the agronomics. Just to see a community surround itself with grapes and support itself, that was most compelling to me,” Holley tells me. It got him thinking about the golden wheat fields back home. “What are we great at in Minnesota? Clearly small grains. We’re in the Grain Belt, after all.”

And so began his plan to not only become a craft brewer, but to go one step further and make his own malt from local grains, in-house. In 2016 he opened Able Seedhouse + Brewery in Northeast Minneapolis and got to work.

As it turns out, making malt is not easy.

Casey Holley. All photos courtesy of Able Seedhouse + Brewery.

“As a craft brewer in America today, it’s really easy to get on your computer and, with two clicks, get all the goods you need shipped to your dock overnight,” Holley says. Instead, he wanted to build his own supply chain. “That’s kind of difficult when a) you don’t know what you’re doing and b) you don’t even know if it’ll work when, and if, you can figure it out.”

He adds, “When you’re trying to build out a brewery and operate it on a day-to-day basis—which we’re doing, running a production brewery and tap room—just to find the time, not to mention the money, to try to build that supply chain and then get it here and process it...” Holley trails off, wiping his hand across his brow. “It hasn’t been done since the 60’s here in Minnesota. We’re starting to see why. It’s hard. It’s hard as shit.”

Here’s why: Farmers across the country are not incentivized to grow small plots of specialty grains for tiny brewing operations. Able Brewery worked with the University of Minnesota to identify smaller farmers who believe in the brewery’s mission and who are willing to grow and sell small volumes. But that didn’t happen overnight, and getting the raw product was only the first hurdle. There’s still the dark magic of malting.

Holley walks me through the brewery, past flats of colourful cans stacked impossibly high. The bright, clean space is punctuated with homey touches. By a door with a sign reading “Brooms n’ Shit” is the malting area. I notice a photo of Minnesota North Star Gump Worsley tacked to the wall. Holley looks at it fondly, “He was one of the last players in the NHL to go maskless. You can see he’s a little messed up, but not too bad for taking pucks to the face.”

The basics of malting are as follows: One cannot take raw grains out of the field and make beer. The starches in those grains must first be transformed into fermentable sugars.. To do that, you wet them so that they germinate, then dry them to halt the sprouting at a precise moment.

“What we’re trying to do is convert those starches into sugars through the malting process. That gives the yeast stuff to eat and create.”

The drying requires heat and fans and rakes, and it’s as fussy as a newborn baby. Holley can’t make malt unless he knows he can be at the brewery for a solid seven-day stretch. “It’s very manual, tasting and observing and ‘holy shit, we got it to work!’”

Or not.

There are a million ways to screw it up, as Holley found when he started experimenting with malt while still in California. Back then he was doing it in the bathtub; here in the heart of Logan Park, Minneapolis, he’s got a state-of-the-art old dairy tank that he jury-rigged into a kiln.

“It wasn’t until Louis Pasteur that we figured out yeast. Before that they thought it was some sort of magic.” Holley has the bright eyes of a convert as he explains the malting process. “It still is pretty magic.”

One of the ways that a batch of malt can go wrong is if the grain has been infected with ergot, a fairly common toxin that appears in small grains. “It can get really gnarly. We test everything coming in now.”

Holley tells me about his friend Stu Nutting. Stu worked at the nut and bolt company back when he was still experimenting with a bathtub full of fermented grains..

“He went off to start his own business. When he left I felt heartbroken. It was like Jerry Maguire: ‘Take me with you, dude. Please take me with you.’”

Once Stu got his new IT consulting business set up, Holley was the first person he called. “We worked out of his basement, next to the deep freezer, for two years.”

During those two years, Holley’s dream of being a brewer bubbled away. He drafted a business plan and built a team, and then he sat down with Stu. “I barely even got the words out when he said, ‘Where do I invest? How can I help?’”

To make his brewing dreams come true he had to find Stu Nutting. In order to make malt he had to find farmers who could think outside the box. And to evolve his team he had to find Witch Hunt.

Holley wanted to better understand who the Able customer was, so he hired a marketing company. And when the results came back skewing female he was surprised. “We’re just a bunch of bearded dudes in the brewing industry. We thought our customers were all bearded dudes too. But we found that it’s families and a lot of women.”

That’s when he reached out to Witch Hunt, an organization that promotes and supports gender parity within the brewing industry. “They’re collaborating with breweries and trying to find creative ways to empower female brewers in the state.”

Now every new job listing at Able goes out to Witch Hunt first. “We really don’t care about gender at all—we’ll bring in anyone with a good work ethic.”

The brewery has also been collaborating with local chefs on limited run beers; a pale ale called Easy, Tiger with Brasa Rotisserie (a Northeast Minneapolis standard) and Grim Arcana, a smoked brown ale made with in-house malt and smoked by Animales Barbeque Company, the new barbecue trailer outside the taproom that was just named among the best new restaurants in the Twin Cities.

Able’s best-selling beer is a golden ale called Supergiant, followed by First Light, an IPA. The red amber, or pub ale, called Propers, just won a Minnesota Brewer’s Cup for best beer.

And, after much trial and error, Able finally has produced a beer brewed with 25 percent house-made malt.

For a story like Holley’s, it could only have one name: Americana.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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