Hanging with the Island Maltster

As a craft beer and homebrew fanatic, I consider myself very lucky to live in Victoria.  It has an amazing craft beer scene and a thriving homebrewing culture.  As a member of BrewVIC, I am even more pleased that one of our earliest members is Mike Doehnel, the Island Maltster. I have been lucky enough to use Mike’s malt in a few of my beers, and if you’ve had any of Driftwood Brewing’s specialty beers, you’ve tasted the product of his work as well. At BrewVIC’s February meeting, Mike gave us a tour of his malting facility at his home north of Brentwood Bay.

The miserable weather deterred a few of the rain-weary members, but a great core group showed up to see how their malt is made.  As brewers, we understand that we can get different types and colors of malt that have different impacts on our mash and beer.  However, because much of the commercial malt we use is made across the continent and indeed across the world, we rarely see the actual malting process and how it influences what ends up in our pint glasses.  Mike exposed us to what ‘malting’ is and explained how he mimics historic processes (rather than current ones used by many large malting facilities today). 

We started the day in his garage where he explained his basic processes and talked about the grain he grows around the Saanich peninsula.  He showed us examples including barley and oats.  We also saw an assortment of his amazing historical harvesting equipment.  While waiting for the rain to blow over, we peppered Mike with questions and sampled members’ homebrew.

Mike next showed us the malting house.  The traditional  “floor malting” process he follows is exclusive to some of the oldest malting houses in Europe.  Grain is steeped in water and spread over a heated floor.  Over subsequent days, it germinates which activates enzymes within the grain.  Mike regularly turns the malting grains by hand to ensure even heating and germination.  It’s this time and labour intensive process that means floor-malted grain is in such limited supply.  Though malt made this way is highly sought after by the finest craft breweries in Europe and North America because it produces a rich malt character.  As Vancouver Islanders, we’re lucky to have our own maltster making this malted gold so close to home. 

While the malting process is an amazing craft that requires a great depth of understanding of biochemical processes, Mike was able to break it down in a simple-to-understand way that left everyone even more curious.  Mike could have spent the rest of the weekend answering our questions.

Finally Mike covered the roasting and toasting processes over more beer samples and great snacks back in the garage.  

All in all, it was a wonderful, educational event.  A big thanks to Mike for being so free with his time and generous with grain samples.  Thanks also to the great BrewVIC’ers that braved the weather, shared their brews and made it a fun day.

Michael Lewis, BrewVIC Founder

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