Category Archives: Beer Tech

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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Lagers and Hybrids Gain Traction

Over the past few years, craft brewers around the country have set out to prove that lager is not a four-letter word. In fact, there are plenty of good words to be said about lager.

Lager brewing is a test of a brewer’s skill; lager yeast is very particular, and will manifest strange off flavors if not treated right. Malt quality will become readily apparent, as lager yeast tends to emphasize the malt bill. Yeast count, fermentation temperature, even fermentor shape affect the final product, and should be taken into account when brewing large batches of beer.

In Oregon, there are many breweries that produce a variety of craft lagers on the regular; I don’t mean a “token” lager to appease macro beer drinkers (HUB’s Lager comes to mind– it’s a great lager, but is the only one they produce). There are more styles of lager than Pilsner, woudn’t ya know, and it’s gotten to the point where the idea of a craft lager “revival” is relevant to the beer conversation.

Full Sail has been producing their LTD line of lagers for several years now, and has showcased many lager styles, from Bohemian Pilsner to Vienna Lager (which is typified by Negra Modelo, woudn’t ya know). Heater Allen produces a range of German styles, mostly lagers, and they do it very, very well.

Perhaps the most important asset to locally produced and consumed lagers is hop character– they have it! I spoke with a Bier Stein customer about local vs. imported lagers, and the most defining difference seems to be the presence (and lack, in the import versions) of hop aroma. That long trip across the pond and through our Interstate system gives those imports a little too much time to breathe out their former hoppy glory (just another reason to go to there*), whereas a fresh Heater Allen Pils is piquant with spicy, herbal notes from German hop varieties (these include, but are not limited to: Hallertau Mittelfruh, Tettnang, Spalt, and Czech Saaz). Some of these varieties are grown here in the Northwest (Saaz, Tettnang (which is remarkably similar to, and may in fact be Fuggle))– even better to showcase our lager brewing prowess!
(*This is not to say that imported lagers aren’t good. On the whole, they are delicious– it’s mainly the Pils and Helles that have lost some of their pizzaz, but they’re still uber refreshing!)

A few other local breweries have a penchant for bottom-fermented beers: Falling Sky has practically run the gamut of lager styles, going so far as to produce an Imperial India Pale Lager, truly capitalizing on a Northwest fetish. Occidental Brewing in Portland had a Dortmunder at the Oregon Brewers Festival that seemed to nail the style description with plenty of malt and hop flavor, medium body, and a decidedly smooth but bitter finish.

While we’re on Occidental, let’s talk hybrids. They produce a Kölsch, described on the cans as a “German-style ale.” That’s partially true. It’s definitely German, originating in Cologne (Köln) in the late 19th Century; it’s definitely an ale, as the yeast is top-fermenting. But it’s so much more! “Hybrid” beers– Kölsch, Altbier, and California Common are the most notable– lie somewhere in the middle, and bear the marks of evolution in brewing tradition.

Kölsch and Altbier use ale yeast that produces a “clean” beer in cooler (55-60F) conditions, i.e. very low fruity esters and phenolics, much closer to lager character than typical ale yeast, which doesn’t ferment very well below 62F. The use of ale yeast is relegated to these styles, and Hefeweizen in Germany, and harken to the days before refrigeration and the isolation of lager yeast.

California Common, commonly known as Steam, is brewed in a somewhat opposite fashion. German immigrants brought lager yeast to North America; many used it to start breweries that grew into, for example, Pabst. Others brought it to California during the Gold Rush. Without refrigeration (or temperature-stable caves), they had to take advantage of the cooler coastal weather and hope for the best. The original example of the style is Anchor Steam, brewed by Gottlieb Brekle in the late 1800s. The beer is amber in color, with toasty notes from Munich malt, and distinctive woody-minty flavor and aroma from Northern Brewer, a German hop variety.

In Eugene, nearly every brewery has produced a Kölsch-style beer in the last year. Claim 52’s version is available around town year-round, while Falling Sky, Ninkasi, Oakshire, and Agrarian (Sommer Steiner) have done single batches. Everybody’s is a little different. My own homebrewed version is slightly more bitter than the standard (Reissdorf), and I change up the hops now and then because I can. Kölsch should be soft, with light and crisp maltiness, very low bitterness, and just a bit of hop aroma. The difference between it and Pilsner is a somewhat ethereal quality of fruit that comes from the yeast.

And so the crazed minds of craft brewers continue to defy; to upheave beer drinkers’ notions of what can be, what is good beer; to reclaim lager as “one of us.”

Firkins, Spiles, Shives…

It may sound like a technical guide to The Jabberwocky: the glossary of terms for cask-conditioned beer is right up there in the silly-sounding-words department. At this point in an intermediate-to-professional beer drinker’s life, you’ve probably had beer from a cask/firkin/beer engine. Chances are, you first thought it was too warm, too malty, flat. Then you picked up on some of the subtleties that come with fresh, live, real ale, nuances that can be found only in cask-conditioned ale. Or, if you still think it’s flat and warm, try it again, and imagine yourself in a pub (oh right, you already are in a pub) on a rainy evening (it is Oregon after all), in the 1890s (got ya there!). At this point I’m thirsty enough to drive to Oakridge for a pint of Brewer’s Union Local 180’s Real Ale. A pint of ESB or Porter is great after coming down from the mountain (or going up…).

Before pressurized CO2, brewers needed a way to carbonate their beer, so they would seal it up in a wooden cask (a firkin = 9 Imperial gallons, or 10.8 U.S. gallons) before it had finished fermenting; the remainder of fermentation would produce enough CO2 to lightly carbonate the beer to make it brighter, more palatable. Carbonation protects beer from oxidation and infection, increases bitterness perception, and generally makes beer more enjoyable to drink.

Back in the 70s, a consumer advocacy group called the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) wrote the constitution of Real Ale, defining it as

“a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation. It is this process which makes real ale unique amongst beers and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which processed beers can never provide.”

— http://www.camra.org.uk/aboutale

And so we have Real Ale.  But don’t be fooled! Some breweries will fake it by taking finished beer, force carbonating it to a low level, and putting it into a firkin, or simply calling it “cask” beer. It may be effective at recreating some aspects of Real Ale, but is disingenuous to consumers and misses the point of recreating a historical method of making beer.

There are two ways to enjoy Real Ale: it can be hooked up to a “beer engine” and pumped into your pint; or it can be poured by gravity from a spigot that is driven by mallet force into the keystone (tap-hole) of a firkin. Regardless of how it is served, Real Ale is alive and very temporary– as beer is poured, oxygen is allowed in through the shive (a vent on top of the firkin). Oxygen exposure will spoil beer over the course of a couple days, so it needs to be drunk!

One of the many awesome aspects of Real Ale is that you can “dose” the firkin with anything you want– hops, coffee, wood, fruit… it’s impossible to do that in most commercial kegs. On July 18th, the Stein is putting on a smorgasbord of wood-aged beers, and one of those will be a firkin of Falling Sky’s Exposure IPA, dosed with (I think) hickory wood and hops.  Even sooner than that, on Wednesday (7/3), we’ll have a firkin of Firestone Walker’s Walker’s Reserve Porter tapped at 5pm– if you thought it was good out of the bottle, that creamy chocolate sensation will be elevated by the natural conditioning process, warmer temperature (~55F is proper cellar temp.), and lower carbonation.

Get Real!

Update: I had e-mailed Firestone rep Keenan Delehanty for assurance that the firkin was proper Real Ale. He replied back with a paragraph from brewer Matt Brynildson:

Having spent a good deal of time in the UK observing cask ale production, I can assure you that our casks are racked and conditioned in the same manner as those racked by the great cask ale breweries in England.  The only major difference is that our program utilizes no cask finings, therefore the clarity of our beers is sometimes less bright than those you see in the UK.  We feel that we can not use finings effectively unless the publican receives the cask and places it into stillage for an reasonable amount of time (24-48 hours) without moving it prior to serving, allowing the finings and precipitate to stay in the bottom of the cask (that’s a mouth full.)  Most US publicans are moving the cask around just prior to serving which stirs up the cask contents (finings do not taste very good since they are made from fish guts.)  Also, on the subject of priming casks (the addition of sugar or wort to spark a secondary fermentation) this is typically done in breweries that are fermenting in open fermenters and can’t assure that the proper amount of CO2 is present in the beer at the time of racking.  Priming cask beer is not as common as some folks would like to think and it’s all about dialing in CO2.  The CO2 level that finished cask ale should have is 1.2-1.8 volumes CO2/beer and this is what we get in our normal fermentation cycle.  We would only utilize priming sugar if we were unable to deliver the proper CO2 level at the time of racking.  Since we produce our beers in closed cylindrical / conical tanks, we typically are able to get all of the CO2 required for the  finished cask in tank.  We do rack the beer unfiltered with yeast so that any residual activity of the yeast protects the beer while the cask is conditioning.

Hope this helps

Matt

Thanks Matt, great info!