Most beer aficionados are aware that the world of hops has undergone a serious transformation over the past two decades. Growers have produced new hybrid varieties with complex, bright, fruity flavors, and brewers have experimented with new processes and methods to produce intense, hoppy beers with little of the harsh bitterness that can drive away casual drinkers. But the opening of Admiral Maltings, a new malthouse in Alameda, and its pub, The Rake, makes us wonder if malt is on the verge of a similar period of experimentation and innovation. Should we drinkers be expecting and even demanding that as much attention be paid to malt varieties as hop varieties?
Are we on the brink of a barley revolution?
Admiral Maltings opened in the summer of 2017, the first malthouse to open in California since the disaster that was Prohibition. Most of the barley grown in California goes to animal feed rather than the brewing industry, and what grain has been grown for brewers has historically been chosen for its hardiness and its suitability for malting rather than for its flavors.
Curtis Davenport, Admiral’s Head Maltster, points out that until recently there wasn’t even a standardized way to talk about malt flavors the way there is for hop flavors. But recent research from Oregon State University has developed these descriptors (some strains taste of honey and grass, while others have toffee and toasted flavors) and also shown that different barley varieties do in fact contribute flavors to the beer, it’s not just the way the grain is malted. Better flavor means better beer!
Until the first batch of malted barley rolled out at Admiral Maltings in August, it was not possible to brew beer from grain to glass wholly in California. Even Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which has its own estate-beer program, has had to send its home-grown barley out of state for malting. Admiral’s facilities mean that barley grown in California can now also be malted in California, and Admiral is working with family farms to choose barley with characteristics that work especially well for brewing and, most importantly, tastes great. This concept of local ingredients, local malting and local brewing is integral to Admiral Maltings’s business, and it works with growers in the Central Valley and farther north to bring high-quality barley grown in California to California brewers. Davenport speaks fondly of its attempts to bring a barley’s terroir to bear on the final product, in the sense of actually tasting a locality in the beer you’re drinking.
Admiral Maltings opened The Rake in January. So what’s with the name? It’s actually quite simple. Through one set of windows of The Rake you can see a stretch of sky hovering over warehouses on the old Alameda naval base, but through the other glass panels, beer lovers can catch sight of what else? Workers raking barley while it germinates, a crucial step in its transformation into malt.
The tasting room itself is a spartan, high-ceilinged affair, with a dark, metal bar. Train rails that serve as footrests add a nice industrial touch, and a pegboard holds the beer list, 20 strong at the time we visited, while white subway tiles surround the stainless-steel taps. Dogs, children, and outside food are all welcome because if you’re headed to The Rake, you’re there for the beer.
On a recent visit, we decided to avoid darker roasts that we thought might mask the subtleties of Admiral’s premium malts and steered clear of trendy hop-forward IPAs (save one) to cut to the chase: beers that might reveal the complexities of the malt. In this case, we were on the hunt for the terroir, the barley’s localized ecological conditions that, until now, had been lost to industrialized farming and malting. Now, the grassy hints of Woodland might appear in a pale ale or the scent of toasted grain and vanilla from Tule Lake in a lager.
Harmonic Dogpatch Deadhead (Saison, 6.0%)
This clear saison has a burnt orange hue and a nose that makes you pucker before it hits your tongue. The classic champagne-like carbonation brought out a slight vanilla sweetness that might have been an attempt to highlight the Admiral Pils malt, grown in Tulelake, CA, used in the grain bill. The finish didn’t live up to the hype, however, and rather than ending crisply, it sank: a bit too sweet and heavier than the start.
Fort Point Clarion Lager (Lager, 5.0%)
The golden orange coloring of this Vienna lager was close to a warm tropical sunset, and the first whiff didn’t disappoint either. The lager was simple and clean with a bit more toasty sweetness that reminded Scott of a lighter Marzen. If you like Negra Modelo, one drink of this and you’ll give that up for good.
Independent Escaped the Island (Blonde, 6.7%)
While the malt might have escaped Alameda to be brewed in Jack London Square at Independent Brewing, the final product returned to The Rake to show off its wonderful malt-forward flavor that eschewed any hop-heavy bitterness to mask its unusually high ABV (for a blonde, at least). Maybe that was the “bready” flavor ascribed to it by the menu, perhaps even a banana-bready-ness with some of the bitter peel thrown in.
HenHouse Instant Classic (West Coast IPA, 6.9%)
By definition, this IPA arrived with hops that nearly overpowered the three Admiral malts present (Gallagher’s Best, Red Seven and KC 20). Still, once you get past a nose of tangerine and the smooth carbonation and bitterness that comes with this clean IPA, the beer’s smooth finish gave hints of grass and wheat bread.
Russian River Key Grip (Pale Ale, 5.5%)
This beer seems to have been brewed specifically to show off Admiral’s malts. It’s delicate, mellow and a little floral. The hops are somewhat restrained considering how much hop punch Russian River can pack into its beers. Will was reminded of Row 2, Hill 56, Russian River’s light delicious single-hop pale ale that is said to be brewed with a generous amount of premium Maris Otter malt. If Admiral’s malt replaced this in the recipe, it worked!