The Session #125: A Smashing Success?

This month’s Session has Mark Linder at By the Barrel asking us to give our take on SMaSH beers, SMaSH being the acronym for “single malt, single hop”. Can’t say I’ve had too many of these beers. The two or three I’ve had were nice but came across as interesting brewing experiments on the interplay of malt and hops rather than beers I’d drink on a regular basis.

I’ve long been a fan of San Jose’s Hermitage Brewing’s single-hop IPA series, which is a similar concept. The series is a great way to discover the characteristics different hops add to a brew and Hermitage often uses new and experimental hops in their series. While I enjoy sampling these beers and experiencing different hops in isolated form, most of the IPA’s in the series are a bit “one note”, underscoring the fact that the best IPA’s are brewed from a blend of hops to create a real depth of flavor.

Hermitage even brewed a single hop IPA using Magnum hops, normally a bittering hop, resulting in the flavor equivalent of listening to a symphony entirely composed of tubas. It was interesting, and I mean interesting in a good way. But while an entire symphony of tubas sounds pretty fascinating, but most people would tire of that after 15 minutes. Drinking the Magnum Single Hop IPA satisfied my curiosity but that’s about as far as I would take it.

Are two component SMaSH beers the equivalent of a symphony of tubas and trombones? Or maybe more like violins and cellos? Perhaps. Many enjoy stripped down sounds or experiments with simplified combinations so perhaps SMaSH beers will have a highly receptive audience. In the Bay Area, it’s a good bet we’ll start seeing SMaSH brews with the opening of the Admiral Maltings, an artisanal floor malting house which is set to open mid-summer.  I’m pretty enthusiastic about Bay Area brewers getting their hands on California grown malt playing around with it. As brewers learn how these new malts interact with hops, they’ll likely release SMaSH beers in the Bay Area, since there is a logic to starting with simplified SMaSH brews before moving on to more full blown, multi-dimensional efforts.

Will SMaSH beers emerge as a unique brewing art form, or are they destined to be nothing more than interesting brewing experiments? With more and more of them appearing in the marketplace, we shall soon find out.

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Curtis Davenport of Admiral Maltings posing in front of the malt house steeping tanks

Does the SF Bay Area Economy Encourage the Use of Artisanal Malt?

I spent the early morning of Memorial Day on an hour long listening to an interesting Beervana podcast on Mecca Grade Estate Malt, an artisanal malt house in Central Oregon. What really got my attention was towards the end of the podcast, beer writer Jeff Alworth and Oregon State Economics Professor Patrick Emerson noted that much of the malt created in Oregon wasn’t being used by local breweries, but was shipped down to Southern California where beer prices are generally higher. Mecca Grade’s malt was more expensive than mass produced malt, adding about 15 more cents per pint to the ingredients cost of brewing a pint of beer. Both Emerson and Alworth noted beer prices per pint on draft in Oregon is typically around $5.50 a pint, where in Southern California, a pint of beer usually costs more than than that. Apparently, the higher beer prices in Southern California support the use of more expensive malt.

This got me thinking about Admiral Malting’s, a malt house scheduled to begin production this summer. Will the local Bay Area brewing economy support the effort? Or all that malt also go to Southern California or elsewhere?

It’s a good bet there will be local demand for the malt. Around here, pints of beer on tap typically go for $7-$8 per pint which ought to be conducive for local brewers to use more expensive malts . I’m not an economist, so I can’t really go into a deep economic analysis of the cost of brewing beer and how the Bay Area economy affects beer pricing. However, doing some simple back-of-the-envelope calculations, we can make some reasonable estimates of the cost of malts in brewing beer and what affects the price of a pint of beer. Then, we can make some reasonable assumptions to see if it’s reasonable to expect people to pay more for beer made with artisanal malt from Admiral Malting, or any other supplier.

First, let’s look at the cost. A recent Huffington post article suggests the typical local independent brewer pays a little less than 1 cent for the malt to brew an ounce of beer. This probably varies a lot by style, but let’s go with a 1 cent per ounce figure, which means a 16 ounce pint requires 16 cents of malt to brew.  It’s not too far-fetched to expect artisanal malt from a floor house malting facility to cost twice as much as malt produced in a modern high-volume malt house, so the extra cost 15 cents per pint when brewed with artisanal malt seems valid.

The next question is, why does beer cost so much in the San Francisco Bay Area and could that change? There are lots of factors that go into the cost of beer pricing, such as taxes, competition between breweries, labor costs. But the high cost of Bay Area real estate is a big factor, arguably the biggest and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. When you buy a beer at a restaurant or bar, you really aren’t paying much for the ingredients used to brew it. You’re paying a significant amount for the establishment to pay for the space you’re sitting in and have someone serve you a beer.  High Bay Area real estate prices, and the labor costs associated with the high cost of living in the Bay Area inflate beer prices. Fifteen extra cents per pint is pretty small in the context of the $7-$8 pints, and if fifteen extra cents of artisanal malt adds an extra dollar in value to a pint of beer that legions of beer aficionados will pay for, using artisanal malt for specialty beers is easily justified.

Most likely you’ll see beers brewed with specialty malt in places specializing in craft beer full of patrons willing to spend more for local malt, rather than at your local Safeway or liquor store, which rely on a high volume/low margin business that more expensive artisanal malt will disrupt. Since the ingredient cost of hops is roughly the same as malt, we’ve already seen exotic hops, which can often costs 2-3 times more than conventional hops, in plenty of tap rooms and speciality beer establishments, but rarely elsewhere. We can expect about the same with artisanal malt, especially since the increased cost per pint is similar.

You might be asking yourself, if the Bay Area is so conducive to artisanal malt, why is Mecca Grade selling malt into Southern California instead of the Bay Area, which is closer? I dunno, maybe a brewery in Southern California caught wind of Mecca Grade, while Bay Area breweries are waiting for Admiral Maltings to go online.  And trust me, plenty of brewers are looking forward to Admiral Maltings to go online.

Expensive Bay Area beer has a silver lining, as long as there’s plenty of people willing to pay high end pricing for beers brewed with novel ingredients.

 

 

Scenes from Admiral Maltings

Unfortunately, people just don’t pay a lot of attention to malt, with hops grabbing all the headlines. An exciting new development is happening in Alameda might change that, at least in the Bay Area. It’s Admiral Maltings, which is building their floor malting facility and pub, to be completed this summer. The effort is led by Thirsty Bear’s Ron Silberstein and Magnolia Brewing’s  Dave McLean, with the day to day operations being run by Curtis Davenport, who learned malting techniques at the Canadian Malt Barley Technical Center and North Dakota State University.

There’s plenty of barley grown in California, mostly around the Sacramento area, but nowhere in the state to malt it.  The last malting facility in California closed over 20 years ago, with the last Bay Area malting facility closing in 1982. Admiral Maltings will use traditional floor malting techniques rarely used today rather than the highly automated manufacturing methods used in high volume malt production. Most brewers swear that floor malting produces a better product.

It’s a dirty secret in the craft beer industry that despite all the talk of “buy local”, the ingredients used to brew beer come from several hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. Barley malt is mainly sourced from places like North Dakota, Montana, and Canada and even Europe. Admiral Maltings will be a key step in building a Bay Area ecosystem of local ingredients, allowing a California terrior to flourish. And as we strive to lower our carbon footprint in the face of climate change, reducing the distance heavy bags of barley and malt are shipped to Bay Area breweries plays a role in that.

It’s a story I’ll telling in the next issue of Edible East Bay and for research on the story, I met with Admiral Maltings’s Curtis Davenport last week at Admiral Maltings site. The facility is a very active construction zone and I appreciate him taken time out of his day directing forklifts and consulting with plumbers to explain what’s about to happen at Admiral Maltings.

I took a few pictures which I’ll leave you with. Those big gray tanks are the steep tanks used to germinate 20,000 lbs of grain. The smaller silver tank is the water recirculating tank delivers water used in the steeping process.  Those smooth concrete floors?  That’s where the floor malting magic is about to begin.

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