Thursday, April 25, 2024

Malting master

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The malting process is still a craft and Jackie Harrigan talks to one of its craftsmen. Giving up a lifetime of the craft of malting barley is not going to be easy for Malteurop’s Marton-based maltster Peter Molenaar. Still, after 40 years of learning his craft, he says its time to move on to retirement. While the rest of the beer-making process has been largely mechanised and computer controlled during his lifetime in the industry, the Dutchman from Rotterdam says the malting process is still a craft. There are so many variables that the wetting, germination, then malting of the grains so integral to the beer industry cannot be done without a trained nose, tastebuds and eye. Every day in the malthouse is hands-on, or hands in, from the steeping tanks where the barley is totally wetted to the temperature and humidity-controlled casting beds where the germination takes place before calling a halt to the process with slow heat and drying in the kilning process.
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“The barley is a living grain, and needs to be treated gently to produce consistent malt for the brewery,” Molenaar says. “If you read how to do it from a book, you are usually too late reacting – the smell, colour and feel dictate whether the grains need to be heated, cooled, moved or aerated more or less. After 40 years, I am still learning.”

Explaining how every batch and every year is slightly different due to the variety of the malting barley, the size of the grains and the time it has been stored after harvest, Molenaar talks about the grains as if they are indeed living beings – saying when immature the barley grains are like fiery reactive teenagers, after six months in storage they are more reliable like middle-aged people, while the older grains are more like “old fogeys”, needing to be pushed around to get on with germination.

Molenaar says he tried desperately to escape a brewery career, and once dreamed of escaping with a girlfriend to go fish farming at Lake Victoria in Uganda, producing cheap protein for starving Africans – a dream quashed by Idi Amin’s rise to power. With a father and grandfather both master brewers he grew up with beer in his veins in the yard and with the shire horses at Rotterdam’s Oranjeboom brewery.

Malteurop retiring manager Peter Molenaar and new maltster Tiago Cabral.

Now rebranded Malteurop, the Marton plant employs 12 full-time employees and malts 60,000 tonnes of malting barley, 70% South Island grown and 30% North Island grown. Situated in Marton because of access to the Kiwi Rail line and the gas pipe from Taranaki to Wellington (as the region’s largest gas user to dry the barley), both raw grain and maltings are stored on site in purpose-built temperature and moisture-controlled silos.

The maltings are sent on to Auckland to Lion, DB and Independent Liquor’s Boundary Road brewery, as well as other small boutique breweries.

Pilsener malt is the main variety produced by Molenaar and his Portugese replacement, new operations manager and maltster Tiago Cabral, with Munich and Dortmonder malts produced for slightly darker beers. The really dark brews are made from roasted malted barley, a process which Malteurop is starting on but not yet producing commercially.

Both Molenaar and Cabral are enthusiastic imbibers of the product and rate Kiwi beers highly. While they say beer snobs are as plentiful in the industry as wine snobs, they steer away from the larger brown bottle brands but enjoy a cross-section of Kiwi boutique beers, saying they stand up well against ales from the much-older European brewing industry.

Ancient craft 

Malting and beer making are old crafts, dating back to when everyone who could afford to drank beer or wine rather than the not-so-clean water.

The same process has been followed to malt barley for over 8000 years – with the oldest remnants identified in Basra in Iraq and dated back to 6000BC when women steeped the grains in woven baskets in the river, heated them in earthernware pots, then spread them on a mat in the sun to dry – being heaped to increase the heat, and spread out to cool.

The grain has to be malted to break down the protein matrix so that enzymes are activated and the seed starch reserves are opened up and converted to maltose and eventually glucose – unlike the winemaking process where the sugar is accessible and needs only to be squeezed from the skins.

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