MARK BRAULT turns one shovel of heavy, water-soaked barley on the slick, painted floor of a 150-year-old timber-framed barn, and then another, and another, as country music plays on the speakers. He’ll turn 3,500 pounds of grain three times this day and for 3 1/2 days total, the essential labor in a process known as floor-malting that aerates and untangles the sprouting grain.
Then he’ll shovel it all into a wheelbarrow and roll it into a wood-lined metal shipping container that has been converted into kiln. Outside, Brault will baby-sit the grain for 22 straight hours, closely monitoring temperature and moisture content as it is slowly toasted dry.
Then he’ll shovel it again into equipment that cleans and sorts the malted grain, and fills one 55-pound sack at a time.
And so goes the backbreaking, soulful work of Deer Creek Malthouse, in Westtown Township, Chester County, the first maltings to open in the Philadelphia area since Prohibition.
“It’s long and slow,” Brault said. “It’s not an industrial process. It’s an art and a science. “
Brault, the malthouse’s only full-time employee and one of its three owners, is part of a burgeoning movement that seeks no less than to take back a portion of the essential brewing grain from industrial agriculture and return it to sustainable, local farming. His company is one of about 50 so-called craft malthouses that have cropped up in recent years nationwide. Two more are slated to open later this year in Montgomery and Lancaster counties.
A hundred years ago, most breweries made their own malt, which is cereal grain (mainly barley) that is partly germinated and then dried to develop the enzymes that convert starch into sugar.
Giant malthouses and their silos once towered across the city. You can still see vestiges of them at the Malt House Condos, across the street from Elfreth’s Alley, in Old City, and the new Granary Apartments, on Callowhill Street in Franklintown.
The industrialization of farming and beer-making, along with the Prohibition, killed off Philadelphia’s malt-making commerce. These days, almost all of the grain used by American brewers is grown, harvested and mechanically processed in the Midwest or overseas by mammoth agribusinesses. The malt is relatively inexpensive, dependable, high quality and sold by the railcar-load.
Deer Creek, by contrast, uses hand tools and ingeniously repurposed machinery. Its finished malt can cost three times as much as even the best malt from Germany.
High costs and time-consuming work are hardly the biggest stumbling blocks for a craft malthouse start-up. Before Deer Creek turned its first shovelful, it had to find farmers willing to grow the type of barley used in beer.
It has about 100 acres under contract, including about 40 that are sprouting winter barley just down the winding, muddy driveway that leads to the malthouse. It’s a surprisingly quiet spread, just minutes from busy West Chester Pike, with a red barn and post-and-wire fences.
“We had to dig three feet of pig manure out of this room,” said Brault, 34, who didn’t exactly grow up on a farm.
He’s a former Merck & Co. biologist with a master’s degree in business from Villanova and a master’s in immunology from Thomas Jefferson University. His partners, Josh Oliver and Scott Welsh, have deep backgrounds in chemistry and agriculture, respectively.
Together, they’ve spent months testing more than 75 winter barley varieties to find ones that are disease resistant, have high yields and can thrive in the region’s stifling humidity.
“The gap between what we need and what we grow is astounding,” said Brault, who estimates that it would take 50,000 acres of Pennsylvania farmland to meet the needs of the state’s breweries. “I’m not sure we’ll ever fill it, but that’s our niche. “
It’ll be a long slog – more challenging than turning over one shovelful of grain after another. But the craft-malting movement ought to attract support from small brewers who, after all, can’t truly claim to be part of the local, sustainable agriculture movement if they’re importing their essential ingredient from Canada.
Philly-area beer drinkers can support the effort, too.
Deer Creek malt can be found in Earth Bread + Brewery’s Baltica Arabica porter, as well as an upcoming beer in Troegs’ Scratch Beer Series.
On Friday, I’ll be pouring Free Will Milk Stout, made entirely with Deer Creek malt, at a session of Happy Hour Yoga at Yoga on the Ridge (493 Domino Lane, Roxborough). Tix at ow.ly/Hzq7J.