Dark Cloud Malthouse

19 Feb
Measuring out Dark Cloud’s 6-row for my first brew using it.

I walked up to Frisco’s Tap House excited but a little uncertain. A few days ago I had arranged to meet one of the people behind a new, Maryland native malt house, to learn more about it and to receive a sample of malt. My enjoyment of pursuing my passions to unusual opportunities like this clashes with my introversion.

I had just finished picking up some brewing supplies from Maryland Homebrew right around the corner. Frisco’s is one the places I like to stop after a supply run to treat myself. They have an impressive selection of beers on tap. The Saturday afternoon crew are super friendly and deeply knowledgeable about the beers on offer along with beer in general. The food is nothing to sneeze at either.

I had forgotten to ask Danny what he looked like. I kind of hoped my online social media presence would make me easy to spot. We had no trouble spotting each other and settled in for a three beer lunch. My usual unease at meeting new people quickly faded as we got to talking.

My first impression of Danny was that he must work hands on amongst the stalks of barley. Growing up in suburban Maryland, he didn’t have the chance to pursue his interest in traditional farming, instead becoming an engineer. Recently he began to think that malting quality barley might be a feasible way to explore his interest in small scale agriculture.

You could be forgiven too for thinking Danny has a brewing or distilling background given his taste in and enthusiasm for beer. He was quick to admit that he is still learning. He still enjoys an American pilsner, especially when out on the waters of the Eastern Shore crabbing, and has been working to expand his palate, trying pretty much anything and everything. At our first lunch meeting, he tried an old ale, a sour, and a pale ale infused with coffee. He admitted to me that he might not have the vocabulary or experience, yet, to claim any sort of status as a beer enthusiast. He certainly makes up for it in his willingness to try new to him beers, to broaden his palate.

Mash re-circulation while making the cream ale with Dark Cloud’s 6-row.

When I re-committed to my hobby of home brewing beer a couple of years ago, I went back over all the recipe ideas and promises I’d made myself but hadn’t done anything with. One of them was the idea of making a beer, or even several beers, featuring local ingredients. I love the idea of trying to capture the essence of a place, especially my adopted home state of Maryland. I (mostly) joke that I am its number one adopted son.

A little over a year ago I read John Mallett’s book, Malt. He spent a chapter on craft malting. At the time, I had no idea that this was a thing. The book even mentioned a maltster in the greater DC metro area, though one that usually produces malt for distilling, not beer. I found a few other craft maltsters online, quickly becoming infatuated with the idea of using ingredients that are just as carefully and individually crafted as my beer is.

Fast forward to a month ago. I caught a twitter exchange with a Maryland brewery I discovered last Fall while on vacation on the Eastern Shore. They and Dark Cloud Malthouse were discussing details of an upcoming beer using Maryland craft malt. I chimed in, voicing my enthusiasm and appreciation that a craft maltster now existed in Maryland. I was unsure how I might secure some for my own use, their web site was scant on details and seemed geared more towards pro brewers.

Imagine my surprise when I received a direct message from Danny, one that started a conversation that led to us planning our meeting at Frisco’s. Danny and his partner Jesse were indeed working with my local home brew store to make their malts available to area home brewers alongside the pros. They had been meaning to approach local home brew clubs to find technical home brewers who could given them feedback on their products. Of course, starting the malthouse took more time than expected, leaving them little time to solicit feedback from the local home brewing community. I was floored when Danny started the conversation by asking if I would like some malt to do just that and when could we arrange it?

After a long lunch, Danny gave me a sack with about twelve pounds of grain in it. During lunch he had explained how this same malt was used in a pale ale made by Eastern Shore, the very project they had been tweeting about with Dark Cloud. I quickly grabbed a few kernels, giving them a quick chew. I could see the reasoning in making this into a pale ale. I promised Danny I would share my recipe when I came up with it with him and Jesse. Danny said he’d be in touch to arrange another time to meet, this time including his partner Jesse.

Sample of sweet wort from the cream ale using Dark Cloud’s 6-row.

My first recipe thought was some sort of adjunct beer. I had never worked with 6-row but knew enough that it had far more diastatic power than 2-row making it well suited to converting ingredients like corn which have little to no amylase on their own. I had read far enough into Brewing Local to start to get a sense of early American beers made with 6-row, including Kentucky common. I looked up a few recipes then decided to add what I felt was more of a Maryland flair, adding some rye into the grist.

Jesse’s feedback was encouraging but he asked me to consider something simpler that allowed more of the flavor of their malt to be appreciated. I conceded his point and continued to read and research. Another distinctly American style has shared the popular resurgence of Kentucky common, cream ale. The base recipe calls for just 6-row and corn, perfect. The trick to making this beer well and close to style as near as I can discern is cold conditioning. Luckily I had just upgraded to new fermenters with temperature control, perfect to take on this project.

Brookeville Beer Farm

Danny, Jesse and I arranged to meet to Brookeville Beer Farm. I had been meaning to check it out, it is one of the two farm breweries local to me. They were agreeable, knowing the place and the area well. I was thrilled to see a couple of malt silos outside the building as I walked up.

The interior is amazing, rustic timber and beam construction in what must have been one of the original farm buildings. The bar at the center is huge and round with a wood fired pizza oven at the back. One wing houses the brewery with large glass panes looking out onto the bar. The other wing contains tall communal tables surrounded by cold cases and interspersed with free standing displays containing locally made goodies. I learned later that Brookeville hosts a farmers market pretty much year round.

My plan for our meeting was to record and take notes. I had hoped to pitch an article to a few craft beer and brewing related outlets. Sadly, that didn’t come to fruition but we again had a fantastic conversation. Jesse is a home brewer with almost a decade and a half experience who turned pro a few years ago. After time at both Flying Dog and Jailbreak, he decided to try his own venture.

He shares a love of technical challenges with Danny. Much of the equipment at their malthouse they have had to fabricate themselves or convert like early craft brewers from equipment made for other purposes. In addition, Jesse hopes to grow the business to a point where they can work much more collaboratively with local brewers. The advantage of a small craft malthouse as he sees it is the creativity that becomes possible. More than the large commercial maltsters, he and Danny will be able to produce much more closely the kinds of flavors their brewery customers are after in their specific beers.

The pair are well on their way. In addition to Eastern Shore, Milkhouse has since released a pale ale featuring their malt. A few more projects are in the works, I’ll save talking about them until they are actually released. Jesse explained that they really only need a few, maybe half a dozen, regular customers for the pair to be able to work on the malthouse full time.

Neither of them are interested in growing for growth’s sake. They already work with local farmers, sharing risk and resources. One area farmer brings the use of his combine in exchange for their expertise in growing high quality barley specifically for malting. They are able to be more hands on with the barley, getting the best possible input into their process. Local farmers benefit by having yet more options in what they produce and access to new markets.

The finished cream ale using Dark Cloud’s 6-row

Since our chat at Brookeville, I made the cream ale. It is conditioning away in my kegerator for a bit before I bottle up a large portion of it to give to Danny and Jesse. On the day I brewed it, their malt performed wonderfully, allowing me to achieve perfect mash efficiency. They had warned me that the early batches of malt were a little high in protein. The near gray color of the wort confirmed that along with all of the potential sugar, I would have a lot of protein to try to clear out of the finished beer. Going into the keg, I was relieved to see that all my recent practice at producing bright beers, no doubt helped by extended cold conditioning, yielded a near perfectly clear beer. The taste is light and easy drinking with a touch of subtle complexity owing no doubt to the malt.

If you are a local home brewer, you can find Dark Cloud at Maryland Homebrew. If you are a craft beer enthusiast, look out for Old Line by Eastern Shore and Green Farmer from Milkhouse. I expect great things from Danny and Jesse and look forward to continuing to use their malt to make some spectacular beers. Next up for me is that Maryland common.

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