Harvest time in a Franconian malt house

For most brewers on this planet the brewing process begins in the brewery. Makes sense, right? Whether the process begins by milling the malt, or if you are a home brewer/do not own a mill, brewing can even start by mashing in. However, the German brewer dials things back one step and endorses the idea that the beer making process begins in the malt house. Barley is often regarded as the ‘Seele des Bieres’ (the soul of the beer) and, as I mentioned in my post about the common characteristics of German brewers, the brewing and malting professions are considered to be inextricable. For this reason, I spent two weeks doing work experience at Rhön-Malz in Lower Franconia helping out during the summer barley harvest.

During the harvest season local farmers wait to deposit their barley at the malt house

Rhön-Malz is a small, family owned maltings located in a small Bavarian town called Mellrichstadt. The current generation of the Lang family belong to a 300 year family tradition of brewers and maltsters. Thomas Lang, current owner and head of production took over the malt factory in 1981 and founded Rhön-Malz GmbH. The malt house employs 10 people and produces base malts Pilsner, Vienna, Munich, Wheat malt as well as Melanoidin malt, both in conventional and organic form.

Since the Lang family took on the maltings they have constantly been working on modernising and improving its facilities whilst simultaneously paying tribute to the factory’s historical charm. For instance, Rhön-Malz is very conscious of its eco-footprint and installed its own, on-site thermal power station to allow self-sufficient energy use and is able to re-channel warm air between kilns that originate from the 1800s.

The modern, semi-automatic sacking unit used to fill 25kg and 50kg bags of malt

Rhön-Malz is also deeply committed to locality. Emphasis on ‘terroir’ is essentially what distinguishes small maltsters like Rhön-Malz from malt produced on an industrial scale. For example, Rhön-Malz are one of the few remaining maltings in Germany that still buy barley straight from their local farmers and not from larger agricultural grain collections who have increased storage facilities and supply networks at their disposal.

The EU funded initiative “Wir sind Rhöner Bier!” was founded in 2013 in order to promote local beer culture in the Rhön region. A diverse collection of 10 breweries, 2 farmers and 1 maltster belong to the culture project, including experimental craft brewers, traditional Franconian breweries and even a former Gemeindebrauhaus (community brewery) founded in the 1600s. The latter is a very typical for the Franconian region whereby wort is produced in the local village brewery and locals come by, draw off some wort into a container, take it home and ferment and package it there. I was even lucky enough to brew a beer in this fantastic brewery with brewer Christian Schmitt but perhaps that’s another story for another day.

The Rhön beer landscape is local and largely free from German industrial beers

Wir sind Rhöner Bier seeks to raise awareness of provenance and focuses upon raw materials. In the modern beer industry, all consumer attention is aimed towards the brewer and ultimately the finished product, i.e. beer. It is all too easy to forget about the farmers who sow, tend to and harvest the barley and the maltsters who transform this into malt whilst we sup away at our hoppy beers that shove the malt into background. Farmers and maltsters put an equal amount of love and care into their work as the brewer does but receive much less commendation and recognition for their hard work. The ‘grain to glass’ principle, or as the locals call it “vom Halm zum Krug” (stalk to tankard) seeks to change this mentality and reduce the often superfluous logistics involved in the raw material supply chain, particularly concerning the prevalence of imported malt in many breweries. Thomas Lang states: “Brewers have broken their ties with their raw materials. Breweries used to malt their own barley but since this is no longer the case they can simply buy malt and not have to worry about the rest. It is important that the brewer and the maltster engage with one another and rebuild this long forgotten tie.”

Rhön-Malz has a supply base of 150 local barley farmers

The main piece of experience I will take away from this fantastic, yet short stay at Rhön-Malz is that malting is a hard graft. Brewing is portrayed to be (and is, to a large extent) a glamorous job. Brewery marketing departments post pictures of brewers nonchalantly adding hops to the kettle and brewers are able to enjoy their wares after a long day of opening and closing valves and, if they’re really lucky, operating brew house automation software. OK, whilst this portrayal is perhaps a little exaggerated, brewers do have it significantly easier than their professional counterparts in the malt house. Whilst life in the maltings does have its simple pleasures, such as enough malt to nibble at for a lifetime and the fantastic smell of roasted coffee and caramel in the speciality malt storage, it also entails many jobs that are less than glamorous. Some of these include working in a dusty environment (two weeks working in the malt house during the harvest has probably had the same effect on my lungs as would smoking 20 cigarettes a day for two years), moving 50kg sacks of malt from A to B and raking kilned malt at 80°C+ temperatures. Maltsters are hardcore and deserve to be held in pretty high esteem if they are able to give soul to a watery mix of hops and yeast.

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