Making Your Own Malt

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Beer has been made across cultures for thousands of years, and has especially flourished in grain-centric agricultures.
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“Gardening for the Homebrewer” by Wendy Tweten and Debbie Teashon brings the process of brewing home by detailing some of the best practices for growing, harvesting, and fermenting your own ingredients.

Gardening for the Homebrewer (Voyageur Press, 2015), by Wendy Tweten and Debbie Teashon walks through the cultivation, harvesting, and brewing processes necessary for making beer, cider, wine, and much more. As two seasoned gardeners, Tweten and Teashon know the fulfillment of growing food for the table and for the wine cellar. Assembling a brew book as a guide, the two seasoned gardening writers share their passion for following the process from “garden to glass”, seed to stein, barley to beer, and vine to wine. No detail is spared, packing in specifics of the best growing seasons, zones, varieties, and cultivation conditions.

Why would anyone want to go through the complicated home-malting process? For the same reasons you grow the ingredients and brew your own beer, of course: qual­ity, sustainability, and your love of experimentation! Barley is the best grain to start with, though with a few tweaks to the process, other grains will work with the following method.

The good news is that, while it can be tricky, there are just a few steps to malt­ing grains (and if you are an experienced gardener, you probably already know how to germinate seeds). The best time to malt barley is from late fall to winter — depending on your basement temperature — and when you have approximately one week to complete the process. You need a room that you can keep at 50°F (10°C) or cooler. The cool temperatures keep the grain from growing a green shoot. The same tempera­tures also prevent the grain from growing mold, fungi, and mildew.

You will need:

  • Two clean 5-gallon plastic buckets, at least one with a lid
  • One sieve bucket (a 5-gallon plastic bucket with 1/8-inch holes drilled into the bottom for drainage)
  • Thermometer
  • Scale that can weigh up to 20 pounds
  • Aquarium pump, tubing, and air stone as well as enough tubing to connect the air stone at the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket to the pump sitting outside the bucket
  • Food dehydrator (recommended) or oven
  • A basement or other dark space that stays at 50°F (10°C) or cooler
  • Baking sheets for oven or a food dehydrator

1. Clean the Grain

Weigh your barley for its dry weight before you clean it. This is an important first step so you will know when your grain is fully dry after steeping. Pour the grain into a 5-gallon bucket and fill with water. Stir the grain, and then let it sink to the bottom. The chaff, small bits of stems, and weed seeds will float to the top. Scoop out the floating debris. Stir again, and allow any debris to float while the barley sinks. Continue until you are satisfied that your grain is free of debris. Empty the cleaned barley into your sieve bucket and allow the water to drain completely.

2. Steep

The process of steeping barley takes seventy-two hours. Place your cleaned grain in the bottom of one of your 5-gallon buckets and cover with a ½ gallon of cool water at 50°F (10°C) or enough water to stand 2 inches above the grain while steeping. Allow this to stand for two hours. Pour the water and grain into the sieve bucket again and let the water drain completely.

Steep your grain for eight hours, then drain and let it sit for eight hours without water. Soak again for another eight hours, then check if the grain is plump, swollen, and showing white bulges. Timing is every­thing, so choose your eight-hour intervals for a time when you will be awake. We know your grains seem like your babies — you’ve nurtured them up to this point. Nevertheless, you can put these babies on a strict schedule that doesn’t have you wak­ing up in the middle of the night for a water change or drain.

Continue draining and changing the water every eight hours for the next seventy-two hours. Keep checking the grain for readiness to germinate. At the end of the steeping process, your grain will be plump and swollen. The tips of the barley grain show a whitish bulge from their emerging roots. Alternatively, you can use an aquar­ium pump with an air stone for aerating the water during the steep. With aeration, you can leave the grain soaking in the water and only need to drain and change the water every twenty-four hours.

3. Germinate

You are now entering the shady side of the process, which requires a dark room with the temperature set close to 50°F (10°C) during germination. This is important — a dark, cool room prevents the grain from growing a green shoot, which is great for growing more plants but destroys your malt.

Here is where you’ll be grateful you invested in a pump and air stone. The air stone oxygenates the water below the sieve bucket full of germinating grain, which means you won’t have to turn the grain.

The aerated water below the germinating grain keeps the area free of carbon diox­ide buildup, which can smother the grain. Aerated water also helps the grain stay moist and prevents the germinating mass from becoming overheated in the middle.

Meticulously drain your grain as you have before in your sieve bucket. Pour a gal­lon of fresh water into the bottom of your other bucket and slip the air stone at the end of the tubing into the water. Connect the tubing to an aquarium pump sitting outside the bucket. Place your sieve bucket inside the bucket with water. Double-check that you haven’t squashed the tubing to the air stone and reduced the air flow. The sieve bucket with barley should be above the water level so that the grain does not come in contact with the water.

Now wait. After approximately three days, rootlets will appear, and a shoot called an acrospire will bulge from the husk. When the acrospires grow 2/3 to 3/4 the length of the barley, it’s time to move on to the next step.

4. Couch

Remember how we didn’t want carbon dioxide to build up around the germinat­ing grains so as not to smother the seeds? Couching the malt means the carbon diox­ide becomes our friend. We stop the acrospires in its tracks by denying the malt much-needed oxygen for growth. This is where the process becomes interesting — the grain starches turn into fermentable sugars. This is the easiest step in the pro­cess and takes one to three days to complete. Simply unplug the aquarium pump and seal the bucket with its lid.

Check the barley and turn the mass of grain once every twenty-four hours. We don’t want the carbon dioxide to kill the malt, just to stop the growth. When the growth is stopped, it’s time for the next step.

5. Kiln

Drying the malt is called kilning. This is the step where you remove the moisture you added during the process. You can use an oven or a food hydrator to kiln your malt, though since kilning requires low temperatures and a long time, an inexpensive food dehydrator is the more practical option.

First, spread your grain out on bak­ing sheets. Then place the sheets in your dehydrator or oven and set it at, or close to, its lowest setting — you want a tempera­ture between 90 to 125°F (31 to 50°C). If you are using your oven, keep the oven door partly open for air circulation during the kilning, and work with a partner to make sure it remains attended overnight. Most malt will require twenty-four to forty-eight hours to reach the desired mois­ture content. You will know your malt is dried properly when it weighs the same as when you weighed the grain before you began the malting process. The easiest way to check on your grain would be to remove 1/4 or 1/8 the batch and weigh it.

At this point, the barley will still be pale. Since you’re working with a small amount — typically less than you would need for a full batch of all-grain beer — you may want to go a step further and create a light or dark crystal malt. Either way, take a break, and transfer the barley to colanders to shake off any rootlets that are still attached.

To toast the malt, transfer the malt to your oven. Toasting the malt at 275°F for an hour should create light crystal malt. For medium crystal malt, toast at a higher temperature of 350°F for twenty to thirty minutes. For dark crystal malt, keep the heat at 350°F, but toast it longer than a half hour. You may need to stir the malt partway through to ensure even toasting. Also, keep a very close eye on the malt as it begins to darken.

Wheat and Spelt

Botanical Name: Triticum aestivum (wheat); Triticum aestivum subsp. Spelta (spelt)

Plant Type: annual grass

USDA Zones: 4-8

Height: 2–3 feet

Soil: well-drained, fertile loam

Light: full sun

Water: moist soil during germination, drier as the crop reaches harvest. Too much water can cause wheat to fall over. For wheat, water two to three times during a dry summer. For spelt, water only during germination.

Growth Habit: grassy

Propagate by: seed. Some varieties are spring planted and some are fall planted. Use 4 pounds of seed

Spacing: Scatter seed across a fallow bed, or sow in the rows with twenty – twenty-five seeds per foot.

Months to Bearing: four, once spring growth begins

Pruning: none

Harvest: Reap when wheat is dry. Cut, bundle, and shock (stack upright in bundles) to dry.

Notes: Spelt is an ancient species of wheat. Wheat and spelt do best with a cool, moist growing season followed by warm, dry weather for ripening.

Best used in: beer

More from Gardening for the Homebrewer:

Planting Your Orchard

Reprinted with permission from Gardening for the Homebrewer by Wendy Tweten and Debbie Teashon and published by Voyageur Press, 2015.

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