Monthly Archives: July 2018

A Day with Mecca Grade Estate Malt

Outstanding in the Field

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Mecca Grade barley with Mt. Hood behind

In the rolling plains of Central Oregon, north of Redmond along Highway 97, Mecca Grade Estate’s shiny silos are a speck of agricultural industry on the horizon. Mount Hood peeks over the hazy hills to the north of the thousand-acre farm, which produces seasonal grass crops including barley, wheat, and rye. Over the last half-decade, the Klann family, who have lived on this piece of land outside of Madras since 1905, has diversified the farm’s business and made Mecca Grade a buzzword in the beer and barley worlds.

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On a summer morning with the mercury teasing triple digits, 25 or so brewers and distillers and barley scientists, and one beer writer, gathered at the farm for a “Malt and Barley Field Day.” After coffee and muffins inside the farm’s reception and tasting area, the group walked across the gravel lot and into the barley field. The flaxen awns, now dry and brittle before harvest, sprayed from the seed stalks like antennae. The “amber waves,” which from afar appeared soft and fluffy, bore more resemblance to a cluster of bristle brushes up close, and made loud, crunchy swishing sounds as the crowd waded into the waist-high rows.

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Pat Hayes and Seth Klann talk barley.

Spread out between the rows in the combine tracks, Seth Klann introduced the farm and explained that the relatively short (1,000 feet), narrow rows of barley in which we stood were part of the Next Pint project, and represented some of 130 different barley varieties cross-bred with Full Pint barley that have undergone field testing at Mecca Grade. In this case, Mecca is an apt description; Seth is on a mission, looking for the Goldilocks seed: Oregon Promise.

The story behind the mission begins at Oregon State University, where the team of barley breeders developed Full Pint barley in 2015. The process of breeding barley and selecting for desirable genetic traits is still very analog; barley, with 50,000 genes, does not lend itself to the more controversial brand of genetic modification. Instead, crosses are made by hand. Barley is self-pollinating, so to make a specific cross, a person, in this case faculty research assistant Scott Fisk, must physically remove the anthers, which contain pollen, put a bag over the plant, and then “impregnate” it with pollen taken from another plant.

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One of the 2-row barley crosses

The “true breed” is created from the pollen tissue of that cross. The process to create a genetic clone, or “doubled haploid” plant, involves a petri dish, a nutrient bath, controlled environment, and the hope that “spontaneous doubling” will occur; that the pollen’s seven chromosomes will double into the 14 necessary for germination. After that, the plants are grown in a greenhouse to generate more and more seed stock until there is enough for a field trial. One barley kernel can produce around five seed stalks, each of which will have many seeds; exponential growth.

[OK, this is a good time for a break. It just got heavy. The reason I find this so fascinating (besides that it seems like magic), is that these folks, both at OSU and Mecca Grade, are on the avant garde of beer flavor development. The difference between a malty pale beer brewed with standard domestic 2-row barley malt (Copeland or Metcalf) and a beer brewed with Full Pint barley malt is drastic, and can be traced–via chemical and sensory analysis–behind the malting process to the grain itself, and where it was grown. That’s terroir. It may sound snooty when talking about malt, but hop growers and brewers who have the luxury of selecting particular rows and lots of hop varieties have been talking about terroir for years. Hops are just more glamorous. Malt, especially base malt, has been treated like a blunt tool, with specialty malts relied upon to provide complex flavors. Now back to the field.]

Each of the test plots at Mecca Grade represented a different cross, and each was visibly different. Despite the science behind this project, these field trials quickly reveal which varieties are more suitable for growth at this place. Some of the rows had been decimated by birds, their once lush seed heads scraggly and lame in the breeze. For some reason, the birds chose to eat that one; it will not advance. Another row had “lodged”– fallen over because of wind, rain, or hail. It will not advance.

Grain is grown all over the world under many different conditions. What becomes Oregon Promise will probably not be suitable for growth in the Skagit Valley, or in Montana or Alberta, Canada, where most North American malting barley is grown. Copeland and Metcalf were developed for their adaptability to climate and geology, and for their consistent yield, protein content, and various statistics that made them desirable for brewing enormous batches of beer. They were not developed for flavor contribution.

Deep in the weeds of the OSU barley breeding program, professor Pat Hayes plays with analogy, metaphor, and off-color hand signals when he talks about barley; it helps. “A barley variety is like a kid,” he said. “Some are stinkers.” Once a good “kid” is found, “malting is the education,” on its path to the pint glass. “Brewing makes it a professional.”

More than likely, Oregon Promise will not have the highest yield of all. Seth is, “looking for novel flavors over prime malting data.” Mecca Grade currently grows Full Pint barley. The transition will take some time, but will provide the farm with its own barley variety and further the development of its terroir.

Get Malty

Once it got too hot to learn anything more in the field, the group tromped back to the reception area, and through a door to where the magic malting happens. Once the barley is harvested and threshed to remove most of the chaff, it is stored in very large silos. At any given time, the goal is to have an extra year’s supply of barley on hand in case of unforeseen events like a hailstorm or late-season rain that can ruin a crop.

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From the silo, the grain is augured down a chute to a sorting machine. Bits of chaff are sifted off to a separate bin, and the barley is run over perforated plates to separate grains that are too small and won’t germinate properly. Standards are high here; Seth reluctantly admitted that Mecca Grade malt is a luxury product, so extra care must be taken to ensure that it looks and tastes good, and makes good beer.

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Following the sorting and sifting, the barley is moved into a 12-ton unimalter. The large metal box, checkered with various doors for observation and troubleshooting the various conveyor belts and stirring arms inside, has the ability to perform all of the steps in malting: steeping, germination, and drying/kilning. At the time, a batch of malt was in its second day of germination. Little rootlets poked out from each kernel, and its softened texture yielded a raw, husky corn-like flavor.

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Barley seed with rootlets.

It takes around five days to produce a batch of malt. After it is done, it goes through one more machine, which knocks off the “chits,” the protein-rich rootlets of the sprouted barley; those are unnecessary in the brewing process, and Seth hopes to find a use for them someday.

After the tour, the group was treated to a catered lunch and a selection of commercial beers brewed with Mecca Grade malt. Brouwerij West from San Pedro, CA had sent up a Belgian-style blonde ale, no doubt brewed with Pelton, a pilsner-type malt. Justin and Jocelyn Leigh, founders of the young Dwinell Country Ales in Goldendale, WA, had brought a refreshing gose that seemed to be the go-to beer after a good swelter.

Oregon Spirit Distillers and McMenamins Edgefield Distillery teams had brought some whiskey, too. There were two from Oregon Spirit Distillers, one made with Metolius and one with Vanora. The Vanora version was lush and slightly sweet, with ample legs coating the glass. Most remarkably, McMenamins had brought a near cask-strength white (no barrel) whiskey that used 20% Opal, Mecca Grade’s crystal malt. The aroma steamed out of the glass with strong notes of spun honey and s’mores, a surprise coming from a clear spirit. McMenamins currently has a rye whiskey (100% Mecca Grade rye) aging in new Oregon oak barrels. Lee Hedgmon, a distiller at McMenamins, compared Oregon oak to Japanese oak, which has high levels of vanillin, and should lend a sweet-fruity softness to the rye’s spice.

A Note on Sustainability

In the high desert, the annual rainfall of 8-10 inches is about half of what barley needs to grow well. To supplement, the Klanns irrigate with center pivot sprinklers. They closely monitor water usage, irrigating specifically to mitigate seasonal stresses, and runoff from both the irrigation and maltings is collected in settling ponds and reused. And although the farm is not organic, it uses minimal doses of chemical intervention. It switched to compostable malt bags after encouragement from The Ale Apothecary owner Paul Arney, who uses all Mecca Grade malt in his beers.

The family farm will continue now, likely through generations, with renewed vigor as a result of its expansion from grass into malting barley. Mecca Grade’s biggest advantage is the personal connection Seth and his family have made with brewers and distillers. Beer is an agricultural product; good beer begins in the field, and the ability for brewers to have access to their farmers helps close the too-common gap between producer and consumer. More knowledge of the ingredients and processes that create beer means that consumers have more resources to choose what they drink. And though Mecca Grade will never have a majority share of the malt market, there are lots of other small maltings operating around the country making similar connections to their communities. The economic and social value of these independent businesses cannot be overstated.

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A Diverse Culture is a Healthy Culture

A mixed culture fermentation, with a diversity of organisms acting in some sort of harmony, has more positive effects on health than fermentation with a single organism. I learned that first from Sandor Katz, the anarcho-fermentalist gay communard living (and surviving) with AIDS, and author of Wild Fermentation and the ultimate reference tome The Art of Fermentation. He’s living proof. But this post isn’t about him, no offense. This post turns the issue of cultural diversity back to the humans who instigate fermentation, and the way they interact with each other.

Having now extracted myself from the freestyle grandiosity of my last post, I have some things to say about what actually happened at HomebrewCon. The massive event is not just a big ol’ pat on the back drinkathon for the American Homebrewers Association and its members. It is an educational opportunity for homebrewers, as dozens of professional brewers and other industry members present thematic seminars on a wide range of topics.

Given that both Gary Glass, AHA director, and Charlie Papazian, the founder and totem, were in attendance for the seminar called Cultivating Diversity and Inclusion in Homebrewing, and that the AHA has recently formed a diversity subcommittee, it’s small wonder that the seminar was the most important thing to happen at HomebrewCon. A panel of four people–Diane Griffin (Umpqua Brewers Guild), Kiley Gwynn (Cascade Brewers Society), Annie Johnson (Picobrew, pro brewer), and Anthony Salazar (diversity education pro, Latino baseball historian, homebrewer)–was led by Debbie Cerda, head of the Diversity Subcommittee. The origin of the subcommittee was a SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat) analysis within the AHA. This analysis revealed diversity as a weakness within the nonprofit and its constituency, and so the AHA took action. Kudos!

The seminar, which took place at 11:30am on 6/30, was guided by the goals and tactical points of the strategic plan that was implemented in June 2018 (I think – very recently regardless), and the panel was asked about personal challenges and successes with diversity in their lives within brewing communities. The atmosphere in the large room, occupied by 70-100 people, was alert and receptive. In the wake of some technical difficulty, Annie Johnson chatted about the Czech-style pilsner she’d brought to serve, and cracked jokes with the audience. Once the PowerPoint was active, Cerda led off with a lengthy overview of the formation of the subcommittee and its nuances. It went a bit long, and I felt that the discussion with the panelists should have been more prioritized.

Once they were given the floor, however, the panel broke down the broad strokes of the diversity subcommittee’s goals into distinct patterns, causes, and effects.

Kiley Gwynn told a story I’d heard before and even been present for, though I was not aware of it at the time. In short, she’d been let go from the second round of judging at a local homebrew competition, and found out later that her presence was, indeed, needed. The misogynistic under- and overtones of that event left her feeling excluded from a group–her own homebrew club–in which she was actively trying to participate.

The tables have turned, however, as Gwynn is now “first lady” and an enthusiastic guiding voice of CBS (my homebrew club as well). She’ll be leading a re-write of the club’s bylaws to incorporate language that is inclusive and anti-discriminatory. She also brought along her homebrewed braggot-style Belgian single, brewed with meadowsweet honey, for us to taste during the panel.

A short generation apart, Diane Griffin expressed that she hadn’t dealt with the same feelings of exclusion as Gwynn, but recognized that homebrewing is a male dominated hobby (according to a recent AHA survey, 93% of homebrewers are male). She put it well: “We would have eliminated 50% of the problem if there had been a Ms. Beer kit.” Chuckles from the audience.

Johnson, who is a black woman, also spoke about her experiences. I had my pen working to compute my thoughts in the moment and didn’t catch everything she said, except this quotable quote: “Beer is community and just wants to be drunk.” If ever there was an elbow in the ribs to get over the active-awkward “colorblindness” that white people are acting out today, that’s it. Johnson also noted that in big beer advertising, historically and currently, women are used as props and marketing tools, still selling beer as sex. Women aren’t represented as brewers anywhere in popular culture, which has the doubled effect of causing people to assume that a woman in the beer industry is probably in sales or service.

Anthony Salazar, who had brought along his Mexican chocolate stout to serve, gave the AHA the template used to form the bones of the subcommittee. He’s a Chicano who works as a diversity education professional in Washington State. His comments flew by as well (luckily, these seminars are all accessible online to AHA members; go listen when they’re up!), but I was able to process an important point, which applies to the hobby’s position in a capitalist society: “It’s a privileged hobby. It takes money and time to get started.”

So, even though I was pretty poor when I started homebrewing (yeah, I was poor but attending college), I had initial help from my Dad, who gave me the equipment. And even when I’d ditched my gear when I moved to Oregon, I still prioritized some of my remaining cash to buy new equipment and start homebrewing again; that’s privilege. The unfortunately large percentage of Americans who depend on some sort of welfare or charity to keep a roof over their heads won’t necessarily have the mental space to take on a hobby like homebrewing.

But the goal of the subcommittee is to increase the awareness and incorporate inclusive, accessible, and diverse language and marketing into the AHA. This is a complicated topic; beer is both a working-class beverage and a “luxury” item. It is not necessary for life, but does contribute to quality of life if used appropriately. The impetus to form the diversity subcommittee is the AHA’s desire to access new demographics while fertilizing its cultural and moral fibers. A businessperson might say, “that’s business,” and I’d say, “that’s business in America.”

After the panel was timed out (but long before it was done), there was a brief Q & A session, which included as much commentary. AHA Governing Committee member Roxanne Westendorf came to the microphone and offered this encouragement: “Don’t be afraid to ask the awkward questions!”

Jason Alderman, owner of Eugene homebrew shop Home Fermenter Center, asked if there were any resources for homebrew shops. What a concept; homebrew shops are the avant garde for new homebrewers, and have the greatest visibility for any campaign the AHA wants to engage. The response from Cerda was a bit off-guard, but the point was definitely taken; the question, well put.

The last comment I noted is the closest to me: a cis white middle-class-ish male (click the link if you don’t know what cis is; I didn’t until recently). I don’t remember who said it: “The issue needs to be pushed forward and supported by white men.” Further, we need to “get out of the way and listen.” Stop mansplaining, hold each other accountable, pay attention. Pay attention. And read Jeff Alworth’s series on sexism in beer.

Here’s what I wrote during the seminar. Forgive the long sentences, it’s how I do:  “Concepts of diversity can extend into the cis white male realm because everybody has inadequacy, inferiority, and fears that are at the root of prejudice. By talking about diversity and leaning into these challenges and fears, these issues are shown the light of day, where they can be observed and conversed about. The most effective conversations acknowledge that everybody is fallible and different, so being open, unrestricted by matters of ego, allows progress and the further awareness that we are all humans with the same basic needs and rights and flaws.”

The AHA has recognized that a diverse culture is a healthy culture. The appreciable effort, I hope, will be a successful, recognizable landmark in the nonprofit world and beyond. The personal stories shared by the panelists were effective leagues beyond reading a simple outline; it will take more of that for the plan to work, for that skeleton to grow muscles. Luckily, Kiley Gwynn was recruited to the subcommittee after the panel was over!

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The FemALE Homebrewers Meet & Greet after the Cultivating Diversity seminar at HomebrewCon

#rdwhahb – A Moment with Charlie Papazian

“Relax!” he said. “Don’t worry!” he said. “Have a homebrew!” he said. 

The totem, in Groucho disguise sitting in a cloud adorned-cart and wielding shuni mudra hand pose (patience, awareness of moment), maneuvered by Phil Farrell The Chicken Man dressed in a turkey suit, beamed under the nose of his mask at the rectangular objects his followers use to record and share their memories. They chanted, on command, “fooooooooam,” fervently, as though the mantra could impel his visage to the stage. The dream-like state within the tall box of a room in which the crowd had gathered pulled the half-drunk mass back from the flow tide of inebriation, even as a bitter, brown ale was distributed to to encourage revelry; a balance of forces. Magnetized by the sight of, it seemed, a man wearing the mask of the totem wearing Groucho glasses, two thousand standing heads followed the movement of the grinning guru; two thousand invisible spider threads sprouted from the heads and arced to the totem, and felt some satisfaction as they connected to a charge of affirmative energy. The chant continued until the totem reached the stage and took the human form of Charlie Papazian, the godfather and patron saint of homebrewers. For a few minutes the Groucho glasses lingered, a remnant of the comic chariot that had brought him there, an apt segue from idol to person. With a voice set firmly in the treble range, Charlie greeted the audience and began unraveling his mythology. Which came first, the homebrewer or the homebrew? Can one simultaneously manifest and stumble upon a new way of being? Those questions remain only partially answered, the true talent of a demigod. The answer lies in the culture. Charlie found a single viable cell (let’s call it the can of hopped malt extract), fed it and nurtured it and smiled at it as it slowly reproduced. He learned its habits and adapted to them. The can of hopped malt extract proliferated around Boulder, Colorado in the 1970s, before cordless, satellite, and cellular phones caused disarray in human communication. It inoculated at first by eye contact and touch in classrooms and at parties. It bounded away from sterile bureaucratic environments that would restrict its growth and movement. The can of hopped malt extract was absorbing nutrients from its growth media and preparing, unbeknownst to anybody, for evolution. The guided became the guide. Timing was critical, and steam began to build as the can of hopped malt extract pushed up against the cracked dam walls of government sludge, control, and ego. Then, from the guarded, gated dungeons of legislation came a POP! A fissure opened, and the can of hopped malt extract tore off its lid and poured through, widening the gap and flowing as fast as malt extract can. Had Charlie waited or asked for permission, the receptors of the collective unconscious may never have been tickled by the idea, and the can of hopped malt extract would have gathered dust.

In the 40 years since the foundation of the American Homebrewers Association, the culture, the can of hopped malt extract, has mutated from a kitchen counter hobby to an industrial sandwich with all the fixins’. Economic impact, import and export, distribution, fiscal years and return-on-investment are now part of the homebrew lexicon. The can of hopped malt extract is an adult, and has adult successes and makes adult mistakes. And now Charlie can leave this nest to the next, return to his home in the clouds. Fooooooooam!

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