Forget hops. In Northern California’s craft-beer world, malt is having a moment

Alameda’s The Rake, the tasting room for Admiral Maltings, is set to open Jan. 26, 2017.
Alameda’s The Rake, the tasting room for Admiral Maltings, is set to open Jan. 26, 2017. Courtesy of Admiral Maltings

With craft-brew consumers growing more educated every day, even casual beer fans can rattle off a few different hop varietals. They’re right there in the names of Bike Dog’s Mosaic Pale Ale, New Glory’s Do You Even Simcoe Broh and Founders’ Centennial IPA. However, the varieties of malted barley used by brewers don’t possess that same name recognition, even though malt is where beer begins.

“It is the foundation of beer; it’s something that you build the beer around,” said Dave McLean, the founder of San Francisco-based Magnolia Brewpub. “I would love to see the public have the same kind of fascination for and appreciation of malt that they do hops.”

To that end, McLean – along with Ron Silberstein, longtime brewmaster for S.F.’s ThirstyBear brewery, and experienced maltster Curtis Davenport – co-founded Admiral Maltings, the first commercial malt house in Northern California since before Prohibition.

Located in the same decommissioned Alameda naval air station where Faction Brewing and St. George Spirits do business, Admiral Maltings has been supplying malt to Bay Area brewers and distillers since August, and will debut its on-site tasting room, The Rake, on Jan. 26. In addition to offering a pub-style menu, The Rake will showcase beers made with Admiral malts, a lineup that already includes beverages by Marin, Drake’s, Faction, Russian River, ThirstyBear and Magnolia.

“You’ll be able to connect the dots with your palate, and get a deeper understanding of the beer,” McLean said.

Instead of using the large vertical tanks found at most industrial malt houses, Admiral Maltings employs an old-fashioned, labor-intensive process known as floor malting. This process allows Admiral to develop more interesting and complex flavor profiles for their malts, McLean said. “It’s a tried and true method that has been done for hundreds of years, if not longer,” he explained. “It’s not something that is commonly done anymore, and yet it is something that brewers really cherish.”

After the barley is sourced from a select group of Northern California farmers, some of them located in the Davis/Winters area, it gets steeped in water and then spread across a 6,000-square-foot concrete floor that’s 5-inches deep. As the barley germinates, workers drag a rake across the grains to prevent clumping, while cooling pipes underneath the floor maintain a consistent temperature.

“We have the best of both worlds, because we’re using this very traditional method, but there are a couple of tweaks that add a little bit of modern innovation,” McLean said.

The barley then goes into a custom-made kiln, where germination halts and flavors develop. “We spent a lot of time and energy developing a kiln that lets us manipulate the variables in subtle ways to get what we like out of the malt,” McLean said.

Each 10-ton batch of steeped barley yields roughly eight tons of finished product, and The Rake, with its window-filled space, allows visitors to view the entire process, from the steep tanks to the malting floor to the kiln and finally into their glass.

Fewer than five micro-malt houses existed in the United States before 2010, but McClean estimates that roughly 50 are currently in operation, driven by a new-found demand for locally sourced, transparently processed ingredients. At Admiral Maltings, each bag of grain can be traced back to a specific field and harvest date.

Early reaction to the malts have been positive, McLean said. “We’ve had a pretty humbling response from the brewing community, from homebrewers to some of the largest commercial craft brewers,” he said. “It felt like there was some pent-up demand.”

Admiral Maltings/The Rake is located at 651 W. Tower Ave., Alameda; 510-666-6419;

Bird beer

Alvarado Street Brewery’s Toucan Touch This, brewed in collaboration with Sacramento’s Jungle Bird tiki bar. Courtesy of Alvarado Street Brewery

Like so many great collaborations, Toucan Touch This began with new friends bonding over booze.

On the final night of last year’s California Craft Brewers Summit, midtown tiki bar Jungle Bird served as the venue for the unofficial after party, hosting out-of-town brewers burned out on beer.

The bar’s co-owner Tyler Williams hit it off with Alvarado Street co-owner and brewer J.C. Hill, who, coincidentally, also was a childhood friend of Melissa Williams, Tyler’s wife and business partner in Jungle Bird, Tank House and Ten Ten Room.

“J.C. and I talked about doing a collaboration, and originally I pitched it for Tank House, because we do a lot more beer there, but he just had it on the brain that he wanted to do something tropical with Jungle Bird,” Tyler said. “I’m not going to say no to Alvarado Street.”

The Monterey-based brewery decided to create a sour beer version of Jungle Bird’s best-selling cocktail, the Painkiller. Tyler and his team measured the pineapple, coconut, orange and nutmeg in roughly the same ratio used in the Jungle Bird cocktail, leaving out only the cinnamon.

“We were concerned that was going to be overwhelming,” Tyler said. “They ended up throwing lactose in to smooth it out, and that worked well.”

Fruity and creamy, Toucan Touch This (8.1 percent ABV), released earlier this month, is available at Jungle Bird (2516 J St.). A new hazy IPA collaboration between Alvarado Street and Tank House already is in the works.

Daniel Barnes is a freelance writer, film critic, beer enthusiast and one half of the blog “His & Her Beer Notes.” He can be reached at