April 19, 2019
This week we had a lot of fun running our first ever batch of green malt. What’s that? Simple, it’s barley that has been malted but not dried.
Before the process of whisky making was industrialised, farm distillers would malt their own barley and use it fresh. Barley was soaked in water, then laid out to a floor maltings to sprout. When ready it was sweet, damp and hooching with enzymes, so it had to be used very quickly or it would naturally start to ferment or go fluffy with mold. The only way to stop it spoiling was to dry it.
That means taking something with around 34% water content and using vast amounts of energy to drive off the moisture. The upside to green malt is obvious, look at all the energy you can save. Why dry something down to 4% moisture, only to stick it back into water again?
The process of drying malt though does have an impact on flavour. It might be from the peat smoke used to dry the malt, or the hot air used crystalising natural sugars in commercial malting systems. That’s why malt crunches between the teeth.
But for the small producer green malt has many benefits. Firstly it allows us to work with small quantities of bespoke grains, it cuts carbon on both drying and transport and it produces a suitably different spirit.
We are thrilled to be working with all round good-guy Garrett Headon from Athgarret Malt, a small farm based malster in Kildare. There is a huge gap in the market for small craft malsters and it’s great to work with someone as passionate about grains as we are.
Garret who grew this barley for us was up at the crack of dawn rolling the green malt, he then got straight into his van and drove to Waterford. The malt was in the mashtun within two hours of it being loaded.
As an industry we’re also not used to processing green malt. It’s still got all the rootlets attached, it’s also wet and that will impact not only on the amount of water used in the mash, but also the temperature strike point. In this particular case the other variable was the variety of barley.
We decided to try this experiment with a heritage variety called Hunter. We got our hands on this variety as part of a great programme driven by the Department of Agriculture to reintroduce heritage grains. Hunter was released back in 1950 and it hasn’t been grown commercially since the 1970s, you can read more here in this great article from The Irish Times. In March this year we were the first distillery in a generation to process Hunter and distill a Single Malt. The new make tasted wonderful. Now we wanted to see how the variety would work in a Pot Still whiskey. For this run we used 100% Hunter: a third as raw barley, a third green malt and finally a third kiln dried. We used an old fashioned straight up distillers yeast and set to work.
As the Hunter was wet we couldn’t put it through our dry hopper, so instead it had to be loaded in into the mash tun one bucket at a time.
But the smell was amazing. Green apples, hot weetabix, honey and freshly cut grass.
The yield was slightly lower than usual, probably because of the high water content of the green malt. Will we do this again? Absolutely. Having run green malt once, we have learnt a lot. If we could include a quantity of green malt in all our mash runs, that would be sweet. We’ll have to see. Our experiments with Hunter are just the beginning of a 5 year Heritage Grain Programme and more about that in next week’s blog.
All this was a great distraction as upstairs the distillery was crawling with builders putting the finishing touches to the public areas. We are now (almost) ready for next weekend’s West Waterford Festival of Food. And if you are going to that, we have some very special gins and absinthe in Merry’s and Masie’s both in Dungarvan town.