Sprouted grains from Blue Ox Malthouse. Photo by Carla Jean Lauter

In the brewing process, yeast does a lot of the work, but I believe the real superhero of any beer is the malted grains.

In the case of most beer, that’s usually malted barley, and sometimes malted wheat (in styles such as wheat beers or hefeweizens). Grains sometimes get overlooked in the role they play in creating your favorite beers – specifically, what it takes to get those ingredients from the field to a glass. Since 2015, many Maine brewers have relied on Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon to take care of that.

To understand the importance of Blue Ox, you first need to understand how malting works and its role in the brewing process. If you take barley that has been harvested from the plant and put it into boiling water, you’ll end up with something akin to porridge or oatmeal – and if you try to ferment it, you will never be successful. Only when the yeast has simple sugars to snack on can it do its magic to produce alcohol and carbonation. Essentially, without these sugars, there is no beer. The problem is that the barley grains are holding onto those sugars and storing them as starch, until they break them down to use them for energy to grow. When sprouting begins, the sugars are unlocked.

So how can beer producers get those sugars? The key is to wet those raw grains and give them time and the right conditions to sprout over several days. This sprouting process is called malting. Rather than go through this laborious process themselves, brewers rely on malt processors to prepare this ingredient, pack it up and send it out to them to use. Blue Ox has taken on this crucial task and now has a five-person production team to work through tons of grain each week.

Floor malting at Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon. Photo courtesy of Blue Ox Malthouse

Blue Ox uses the “floor malting” method, which involves laying out damp grains on the floor of a wide humidity-controlled room that allows the grain to build up heat and moisture, triggering the beginning of the growth process. To accomplish this, the malt is spread out on the floor into an even, inches-deep layer and is periodically turned over using special rakes.

This technique is centuries old and was the only method of malting used until the 1850s. Until last year, Blue Ox’s operation was the largest floor-malting facility in the United States and was only recently eclipsed by a new facility on the West Coast that opened last year. Last year, Blue Ox spent more than 900 hours turning over the malt, producing enough for 4.3 million pints of beer.

Blue Ox is working to shorten the supply chain for brewers and working with farmers to make sure that local grain has a chance to show up in the beers poured in the local pub. Blue Ox provides its products – which include malted barley, wheat and other grains, as well as smoked and roasted versions of those grains – to many Maine breweries, as well as customers out of state. Some brewers have even worked with Blue Ox to create custom products that they use for a particular beer.

“We were really excited about this last year, and continue to be excited about going into the new year,” said Joel Alex, founder of Blue Ox Malthouse. “We’ve really been working over the last year to increase the amount of farms that we work with and really grow those farm connections.”

In the new year, Blue Ox hopes to work with more farms and to expand the types of grains they are using to broaden the portfolio of products that they can provide to brewers. In addition to the malted barley and wheat that are relatively common, Blue Ox recently has added malted oats and malted rye to its lineup and is looking to expand to more varieties of organic grains in the future.

Carla Jean Lauter is a freelance beer writer and blogger who lives in Lisbon. Follow her beer adventures at:

Twitter: beerbabe


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