After nearly a century, malting returns
There was a time when Indiana had malting operations in all corners of the state — including Indy — but Prohibition wiped them out. Corn and soybeans became the cash-favored crops, replacing wheat and barley.
Sugar Creek Malt Company is changing that.
Caleb and Whitney Michalke are taking Indiana back to the 19th and 20th centuries by being forward-thinking. They’re part of a multi-generational farming family with a serious bent towards craft beer and homebrewing. Caleb says that after a stint at teaching agriculture he was ready for something new, and Whitney agreed to join him in his new venture. Instead of doing what everyone else was doing — opening a brewery — they founded Sugar Creek Malt Company in a retrofitted barn in Lebanon so they could combine craft beer and craft-based farming. They work with a consortium of farmers to grow barley, wheat and rye that Salt Creek Malting transforms into malt for brewing.
“We’re trying to make a craft product as well as a local product,” says Caleb.
“People are more aware of the different varieties of hops than of the varieties of grains. We want to bring flavorful malt back and make everyone aware of the role of locally grown malt products.”
Caleb explains that Indiana has soil and weather that’s similar to Europe — and he’s on a mission to convince Indiana farmers that the 50-year hiatus for barley breeding needs a turnaround. After all, this is the Year of the Farmer at the Indiana State Fair.
Purdue University has hired a barley breeder to determine the breeds that will yield the best return and Caleb’s working with him. The 2015 crop of wheat and heirloom varieties of rye and is now being harvested; barley will follow.
“We want to give farmers another avenue for land use.”
A dozen farmers signed on, and even though the weather in 2014 was not great, a fair yield of six-row barley and a smaller amount of two-row barley arrived just as the required build-up was in place for the basic three-step malting process.
And when a sufficiency of malt sacks filled the rafters and the call went out, a dozen-plus brewers replied, with Aurora-based Great Crescent Brewing Company in the lead.
Brewmaster Dan Vallis explains he too was eager to connect with historic roots. GCBC is located at the site of the original Aurora Brewing & Malting Company, which began operations in the 1870s.
Now, Aurora Pale Ale brewed with 100 percent Sugar Creek Malt Co. two-row malt and a blend of Aurora, Willamette and Southern Cross hops is on draft at the taproom at 315 Importing St.
Caleb noted the help he has gotten from numerous brewers, particularly Sun King, who earlier this year brewed Social Justice Imperial American Lager to commemorate NUVO’s 25th anniversary, using barley from Needham-based Academy Malt Co., which opened in 2013.
Great Fermentations owner Anita Johnson signed on as the exclusive distributor of Sugar Creek Malt to the Indiana homebrewing community. Though skeptical at first, Johnson says, “Sugar Creek is plowing new fields with this business — they had to learn malting, design equipment and find someone to build the equipment because it didn't exist commercially. Caleb made me a believer when I went out to the malt house and fields. We have brewed test batches with the six-row barley and have been pleased with the resulting beer. Being able to work with a local maltster using locally grown wheat and barley malt to dial in the end product gives us a degree of control that is unprecedented. What you are seeing is the ripple effects of a booming industry.”
During our visit to Salt Creek Malting, we observed grains in the steeping tank, the first step in the process. Within a day or two they’ll be moved to the germination floor for the 3-5 day process of undergoing natural biological and chemical changes to convert their inner starch to requisite sugars. And before the week is out the grains will be dried and kilned, cleaned and polished, and sacked for delivery to brewers.
Sugar Creeks also begun a Kickstarter campaign to build a smokehouse to flavor barley for dark lagers. Learn more here.
Sugar Creek Malt Co., 5700 N 175 E (Lebanon)
Brew Bracket Kickstarter
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