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Terrific malts with a Quebec terroir

Quebec craft malthouses are adding value to local barley and contributing to unique craft beers.


March 2, 2020
By Carolyn King

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Malterie Caux-Laflamme’s Normand Caux (right) with Felix St-Hilaire from Microbrasserie Les Grands Bois. Photo Courtesy of Malterie Caux-Laflamme.

Quebec has some great examples of craft malthouses that are committed to using Quebec-grown barley. Malterie Frontenac, MaltBroue, Malterie Caux-Laflamme and The Maltraiteur each have their own approach to malting, but they all offer niche market opportunities for Quebec malt barley while creating distinctive malts for the province’s thriving craft brewing industry.

In simple terms, malting involves soaking, germinating and kilning (heating) grain. Maltsters decide on the exact specifications for each step in this process to create malts that meet the needs of the brewers they work with. Since the only ingredients in a malt are grain and water, the choice of which particular barley, or other cereal, to use for the malt is pretty important.

You may be familiar with the term “terroir” in relation to grapes for wine, referring to their unique characteristics that come from their specific growing conditions – the grape variety and the local soil, weather, farming methods and so on. Beer aficionados will tell you that the terroir concept also applies to malt barleys.

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Producing barley that meets the strict specifications for malting can sometimes be a challenge, especially in the moister conditions of Canada’s eastern provinces, because wet weather can promote problems like pre-harvest sprouting. These four malthouses use great Quebec malting barleys and tweak their malting practices to make unique, high quality malts with a Quebec terroir.

Malterie Frontenac
Buying Quebec-grown cereals is a vital part of Malterie Frontenac’s (www.malteriefrontenac.com) approach to malting. “Our idea is to try to go back to how things were made in an artisanal way, in a craft way. Back when brewing started, you didn’t buy things from really far away. You made it work with what you could find around your area,” explains Bruno Vachon, the owner and malting master of Malterie Frontenac, which is located in Thetford Mines.

“So, all our grains are sourced in Quebec. We don’t buy barley from many different areas and blend it to make it an average [like a big malting company would do to create a standardized product]. So, you do have slight variations in the product, which I like to think is a good thing because then you get the idea of terroir. And without having great fluctuations, you do have a product that is more alive and more interesting.”

Established in 2006, Malterie Frontenac was one of the first craft malthouses in Canada. “It all began when I had the chance to get Brau-und Malzmeister training – training as a brewing and malting master – at Doemens in Munich, Germany, and be fully licensed to practice there. It was a year-long training, all in German, and it was a really great place to learn,” says Vachon.

“That training is what gave me the idea to do something with malt, and also the knowledge to be able to do something a little different than was already on the market.”

Rather than following conventional modern methods, Vachon decided to take more of a heritage approach to malting. “Back when beer was made really locally in villages by small brewers, they didn’t go out and buy base malts [which contain the fermentable sugars and enzymes needed to make beer] and specialty malts and all kinds of different malts to mix into the beer. They bought grain from the local farmers, malted it and made beer with that one malt. So, I thought we should be able to make a very good tasting, interesting beer with just one malt,” he says.

“We started with a German pilsner malt, and then an English pale ale malt in the British tradition and a Belgian pilsner. We wanted to try to capture the essence of the different brewing traditions and make malts that would represent these traditions.”

Since then, the malthouse has branched out from these types of barley malts to also produce malts with other grains.

Vachon notes, “We work closely with farmers to get the grain. We buy mostly barley and some wheat, and one malt I personally really like is made with oats – it brings all kinds of interesting flavour profiles. I’m also looking into maybe making 100 per cent oat beer. It would be a lower alcohol, really creamy, really refreshing beer, and I think that would catch on.”

MaltBroue
“The reason why we founded MaltBroue (www.maltbroue.com/en/) was because we wanted to add value to the crops growing on our land,” says Cindy Rivard. She and her husband and business partner Dany Bastille started MaltBroue about 14 years ago and launched its first malts on the market in 2008.

“We wanted to settle on the shore of the magnificent Témiscouata Lake. My husband grew up here so we decided to take over the family farm. At first, we had the dream of doing all the steps – growing the barley, malting and brewing beer. But when we began to work on the project, we learned that malting was a job with a lot of technical aspects and so was brewing. So, we decided to stick with malting only,” she explains.

“And we decided to offer specialty malts to Quebec brewers because there was no one here offering those. Even now, we are the only one offering caramel malts in Quebec.” Specialty malts are used to add colour, flavour or body to beer.

“We produce barley caramel malts and also rye and wheat caramel malts.” She adds, “Sometimes brewers think we only work with brew pubs, the very small brewers, but we also supply our malts to craft breweries that are a little bigger; for instance, we work with breweries like Oshlag, Pit Caribou and Les Trois Mousquetaires.”

Rivard and Bastille are currently looking into the possibility of producing barley flakes and oat flakes for breweries. These flakes are used by brewers for many reasons, such as adding body or enhancing head formation in beers. Rivard notes that there are not a lot of locally produced flakes available in Quebec, so it could be a good opportunity for MaltBroue, and another way to add value to local cereals.

With MaltBroue’s increasing malt production, their farm doesn’t produce enough barley to meet all of the malthouse’s needs, so they also buy from other cereal growers in the area.

Rivard says, “Of course, first and foremost, the grain we use must absolutely meet the quality requirements for malting. Beyond that, it is just logical for us to use cereals that have been grown as close as possible to our farm and malthouse.”

Malterie Caux-Laflamme
“Malterie Caux-Laflamme (malteriecauxlaflamme.com) started in 2016. Normand Caux, the founder of this malthouse, had been a milk producer. But because of an injury he wasn’t able to do that anymore, so he sold his quota. He was searching for a second career and decided to start the malthouse because he had been producing malt barley,” says Vincent Roy, the operations manager for Malterie Caux-Laflamme.

“With the help of a local engineering firm, we designed an all-in-one vessel for malting. So, we do the steeping, germination and kilning in the same vessel. In 2016, we started with one of these vessels and now we have three.”

Malterie Caux-Laflamme makes a pale malt with barley. He says, “Instead of making four or five recipes, like a Munich malt, a Vienna malt and so on, and only supplying a few breweries with each malt, our approach is to go with one recipe and supply a lot of breweries. And then our expansion plans are to produce other recipes for those breweries.”

Along with the barley malt, the malthouse also makes wheat malt and rye malt. 40 per cent of its production is organic malt.

Malterie Caux-Laflamme is located near Saint-Narcisse-de-Beaurivage. In the malthouse’s first year, the Caux farm was able to produce all the barley needed for their malt production. Since then, the malthouse’s production has increased, and the farm now supplies about a quarter of malthouse’s needs. The rest of the barley is purchased from other Quebec producers.

“We make contact with a lot of producers from each region in Quebec and purchase barley from each region. That way we can make malts for the craft breweries in each of those regions from the barley that was grown in their own region,” Roy explains.

He adds, “For us, buying locally grown barley was an easy choice because we are a barley producer and we know a lot of other producers. And we also understand the value of the farm and farmland.”

The Maltraiteur
The Maltraiteur (www.lemaltraiteur.com) is located in Trois-Rivières, and Luc Lévesque’s business plan for his malthouse focuses on serving the surrounding Mauricie and Centre-du-Québec regions. “My concept of the enterprise is to provide the bridge between the local growers and the local brewers. The idea is to grow the cereal here, transform it into malt here, brew it here, and consume the final product here.”

Lévesque first started thinking about setting up a malthouse in 2013. “I was a home brewer, making beer with friends, and I got interested in trying recipes and experimenting with malting.”

So, he researched the concept, developed a business plan, studied the technical aspects of malting – including learning about traditional malting at a craft malthouse in France – and gradually scaled up his operation. The Maltraiteur started commercial operation in 2018.

“The Maltraiteur makes floor malts. Floor malting is a traditional style of malt production [where the grain is germinated on the malthouse floor] to make more aroma and flavour. It is a very distinctive approach,” he explains.

“Principally we make base malts – a pale malt, a UK-style pale, a pilsner malt, and a Munich malt – from barley. And we also make wheat, rye and oat malts.”

As well, the malthouse produces smoked malts, which are mainly for Quebec microdistilleries to use in making whisky. To create smoked malts, special equipment is used to pass smoke through the grain during kilning. Lévesque says, “We use different types of wood to give each of our smoked malts an original flavour. We smoke with maple, peat, beech, oak – the sky is the limit.”

All of the crop growers who supply cereals to The Maltraiteur are within about 50 kilometres of the malthouse, and they all have Agrinature certification through BioMalt Mauricie. Lévesque explains that Agrinature certification is between conventional agricultural production and certified organic production. It is less expensive and a little easier to achieve than organic certification, but inspectors do visit the growers to certify that they are meeting Agrinature’s criteria for environmentally friendly practices, such as not using pesticides.

Lévesque likes using locally grown cereals because of the terroir, and he also likes being part of the craft brewing value chain, with its spinoff benefits to local communities. Especially with the growing popularity of craft brewery tours, many people are exploring small towns and villages that have microbreweries, tasting the beers, and discovering new beers that they want to buy.

Strengthening the value chain for barley growers
Malterie Caux-Laflamme is committed to increasing and enhancing malt barley production in Quebec. Roy points out that barley production in the province has fallen in recent years while production of higher value crops like soybean has risen. For instance, Quebec’s barley production declined from 520,000 tonnes in 2001 to 151,100 tonnes in 2019, but soybean production increased from 315,000 to 1,051,000 tonnes.

“It is really important to keep the pricing up for the barley so we will still be able to purchase great quality barley here in Quebec,” Roy says.

“For instance, if a producer’s malting barley is exceptional quality, we give them a bonus [unlike some big malting companies]. That way we make the producer happier and it makes the land more efficient.” Adding a cereal like barley into a crop rotation along with corn and soybeans makes the rotation more diverse, which provides benefits like fewer problems with crop diseases, insect pests and weeds.

Roy notes, “We can also teach producers about practices to make great barley for malting. For instance, it is crucial to have a good system for ventilating the barley in storage. Right now, for a lot of producers, the quality of their stored barley is going down each week because of their storage conditions.”

Vachon has noticed that the demand for Quebec barley from craft malthouses is encouraging some growers to get back into barley production. “And often for the farmers it’s not about making a lot of money; they find it interesting that they can produce something that went into producing a really cool beer that they can go with their friends and drink.”

Both Rivard and Lévesque say that craft malting can allow closer connections between the grain producer and the maltster and between the maltster and the brewer, which can help in finding options that work well for everyone.

For example, Lévesque says, “Everyone in the value chain has to be happy with the barley variety you use. The variety needs to grow well here so the growers can get good yields and reasonable returns from their crop. And we have to test the grain to make sure it will meet the quality specifications of our malthouse and the breweries we work with.” Currently, The Maltraiteur is using CDC Bow, a high-yielding, two-row malt barley that performs well in Quebec growing conditions and makes malts with a lovely aroma that is of interest to breweries.

Strengthening the value chain for brewers
“Quebec is a great scene for craft breweries; the industry is really booming. But a lot of the craft breweries are less than five years old. And from what we have seen, in a craft brewery’s first few years, they just want to make their business plan work. So, they don’t look at the malt and the hops and going organic or going local,” Roy says.

“So, it’s pretty rare that a craft brewery starts up with 100 per cent local purchasing. That tends to come after two or three years, once they know their business plan is working, and they start thinking about how they can express themselves with more locally grown ingredients.”

In the past few years, Roy has noticed that more and more Quebec craft breweries are moving into this second phase of their business. “In November 2019, the Association des microbrasseries du Québec (AMBQ, Association of Quebec Craft Breweries) held its 10th annual meeting. Four years ago, when we first attended an AMBQ meeting, almost none of the craft breweries were interested in craft malts; they were not ready to look inside their brewery to change their recipes. The most difficult thing for a brewery is to change an existing recipe that is working well and change the ingredients, like the malt and the hops, for locally grown malt and hops,” he says.

“But this November, when we went to the AMBQ meeting, we didn’t have a minute alone; we were continually pulled off for discussions with brewers. And it was the same for every other malthouse. There is really a movement going on, but we need to continue on that vibe.”

Vachon would like to see this movement grow, with more Quebec craft breweries working on enhancing the uniqueness and the distinctiveness of their beers. “It would be interesting for the brewers to give themselves the freedom to explore new territories.”

With that in mind, Vachon is now developing a new Pirate portfolio of malts, which Malterie Frontenac will launch in 2020. These malts are inspired by Vachon’s three-year-old son, who loves everything to do with pirates, and Alestorm, a pirate metal rock band that Vachon really likes. “Alestorm has a song [with the lyrics], ‘We are here to drink your beer!’ and I thought, ‘This is totally awesome because this is totally what I want to do.’ The inspiration just came flowing from there, and their really cool songs about Vikings, odysseys, quests and storms,” he explains.

“I thought if we were to make malts inspired by these songs – storm malt, quest malt, Viking malt – I would have to work with really interesting specs that go out beyond what are currently the usual specs for malt. So, these new malts are going to be very unique malts with very special properties, and a tribute to Alestorm’s spirit of fun, freedom and joie de vivre. And hopefully a lot of cool, innovative, distinctive beers will come out of these malts.”

Another sign that Quebec’s craft breweries are becoming very interested in using local ingredients is a new multi-stakeholder consultation that started in the spring of 2019.

“It is an AMBQ initiative. They had the request from their members, the brewers, to do something to get more ingredients locally,” Rivard says. She explains that the craft breweries are interested in using local ingredients, but they want to be sure they can get sufficient supplies and consistent quality.

“So, all the players in Quebec’s microbrewery sector – the brewers and the people who produce the grain, the malt, the hops, and the yeast – have come together, and we are in a strategic planning process.”

She adds, “As maltsters, we know that we produce really quality malt. Better communication with the brewers could increase their confidence in our products.”

This initiative holds promise for further strengthening Quebec’s beer value chain so everyone from the local growers to the beer drinkers will continue to see increasing benefits – including many flavourful, unique beers. Cheers to that!