Monday, December 14, 2015

Profile Series : Growing Local Beer : Mecca Grade Estate Malt

Guest post from Joe Morris

At the end of a long dirt road against a backdrop of Central Oregon farmland, Seth Klann is unlocking the door to what he calls, "The Area 51 of Craft Malt."  This is not the place you would expect to find a super secret rebel base designed for a craft malt revolution.  Most of the farms out here are known for growing for food, feed and seed. That's exactly Klann's family has done on their land for over 100 years.  But a love of homebrewing led Seth to find a way to marry his pastime with his family legacy in creating Mecca Grade Estate Malt.

The thing about farmers is, they know how to grow crops.  They are intentional about crop selection and rotation. Because this is the first year of malt production, it is tempting to call Mecca Grade Estate Malt a "startup."  But the Klann family originally homesteaded this land over 100 years ago. They have survived this long not by being rash with their decisions. But by crafting the land and adapting to the climate over generations. Though they are new to the craft malt game, there is a multi-generational legacy that shows in the farm operation here.  

One example of the agricultural savvy the Klann family brought to Mecca Grade's barley operation: The Klanns were selective about the cultivar they would grow. They reached out to Oregon State University and found the semi-dwarf cultivar "Full Pint" and chose it for its ability to thrive on the land it would be grown.  Well-suited to Central Oregon's warm, dry growing season and resistant to "lodging" (a condition that takes place when stalks collapse, stunting growth and complicating harvest), Full Pint thrives in the thin soil of the region.  It is these growing conditions, along with their unique malting technique, produce a distinctive malted grain.  

The Klanns aren't exactly new to this land. They've been working it for over a century.

Tasting Pelton (Mecca Grade's run at a Pilsner-type malt) straight from a bag on the farm, it tastes unlike other domestic or continental Pilsner malts I've had.  There is a nuttiness and a crispness that is unique to Mecca Grade.  This "terrior," as it could be called, is present in the finished product as well. 

In fact, the concept for this "Growing Local Beer" profile series was actually formed when I sampled a beer brewed by Mazama Brewing called Oregon SMaSH during my initial visit to Crosby Hop Farms.  A SMaSH beer is a Single Malt and Single Hop beer. In Oregon SMaSh, Mazama uses CHF Centennial hops and Mecca Grade Lamonta base malt.  Lamonta is a bit of a richer base malt than Pelton; it is more deeply kilned in the style of a British Two Row malt. Brewers who use British Maris Otter would find Lamonta to be a suitable comparison. Oregon SMaSH is a well-balanced showcase of what Full Pint can be in the hands of a very capable craft brewery.

While barley crops and grain silos are not unique to family farms. What truly sets Mecca Grade apart is what lies behind the door at the so-called "Area 51 of Craft Malt." 

Simply put, farmers don't malt their own grain; Mecca Grade does.  Though still in the pilot phase, Mecca Grade is malting and kilning their own farm-fresh barley just yards from the fields where it is grown.  Using an exclusive mechanical floor-malting technique that infuses old-world malting processes with the advantages of modern technology, Mecca Grade is producing something entirely unique to the market, a Single Source Estate Malt.

Full Pint Barley mid-germination.
Barley is soaked with cool water (around 60-62f) and allowed to begin to sprout.
The rootlets will be knocked off in a cleaning process. The malt will be kilned to the desired flavor profile.
By contrast, nearly all malt grown and sold in North America comes from only a handful of approved varieties that have been bred to perform similarly when processed by large, industrial malthouses. Malts from all over the country are blended to reach a homogeneous consistency. The entire process is driven by macro breweries to ensure consistency and quality, but not necessarily flavor and certainly not character. Considering the myriad styles and variations of style found in craft beer as opposed to macro brew, this is an amazingly unfriendly situation for craft.

Borrowing the term "Estate" from the wine industry is ambitious, but appropriate. Mecca Grade handles every single aspect of the production of their product: Planting, growing, harvesting, malting, kilning, cleaning and even packaging. The entire life cycle takes place on the farm.  Everything from soil conditions, to the dry Central OR climate, to the ability to craft the grain's protein content (it's remarkably low) through irrigation comes into play.  

The consistency of Mecca Grade Estate Malt is impressive.
There is little to no variance from kernel to kernel here.
Mecca Grade has gone so far as to map out which field individual batches originate and provides this info on the company's website.  There seems to be no end to the detailed data Mecca Grade's ultra-geeky brewers and beer geeks desire and they are happy to oblige.  But as much as Klann loves digging into the specs and stats, he admits "Sometimes we need to be a little more about the Force and a little less about Midi-chlorians."  In reference Star Wars geeks desire to let the mystical aspect of that classic story line speak for itself without over explaining and analyzing.

For a beer geek, chatting with Seth was pleasant. He is engaging, intelligent and a fantastic brewer. When it comes to beer and brewing, he absolutely knows his stuff. I sampled two flawless examples of beer he brewed using Mecca Grade Estate Malt. The samples were from opposite ends of the beer spectrum; American Light Lager and Barrel-aged Imperial Stout.  Both were excellent examples of the style and the malt character was world-class.  As a homebrewer, I'm excited to brew with this malt, as are the craft brewers who have been making the trip to Mecca Grade.

The challenge at this point is meeting demand.  Mecca Grade is still operating on its pilot malter.  This limits production to only 700 pounds at a time. However two malters with capacities of 20,000 lbs and 8,000 lbs are on the way, to be delivered in November and January respectively. With orders coming in each day, they will be welcome additions.

These newly-installed grain silos will provide storage for years to come. Seth Klann (pictured) noted that one is already filled with Full Pint Barley and another with Wheat, also for malting.

Once base malt demand is met, Mecca Grade plans to expand operations to include a hearty, red spring wheat (there is already one silo in the queue) as well as a line of "Opalized" character malts ranging from 20L to 80L (comparable to Crystal or Caramel Malts). But for now, the focus is building the brand literally one hand-stamped 50 pound bag at a time.

It is an exciting time out at Mecca Grade and the beer that will soon be flowing from local taps will certainly make a mark on the craft market.