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Posted April 8, 2013 | 10:35 am, by Mirella

It’s no secret that the province of Québec has a thriving brewing scene. With the craft beer industry in full swing, many brewers are looking for ways to express their terroir and integrate local ingredients into their beers. In la belle province, brewers have a unique opportunity to express their terroir thanks to the presence of two micro-maltsters in the province: Malterie Frontenac Inc. and MaltBroue Inc. These small malt houses are sourcing and transforming local barley, allowing brewers to give their beers a signature Québec character.

Located in Thetford Mines, an hour and a half south of Québec City, Malterie Frontenac first started producing malts in 2006, according to owner Bruno Vachon. Vachon was previously working as an industrial automation engineer in the food and packaging industries. In order to expand his repertoire to include automation services for the brewing industry, he decided to go to Germany and learn more about brewing and malting. While completing a master brewer course, Vachon became intrigued with the malting process and decided that it would be great to start a Québec malt house that specialized in producing malts for the microbrewing industry.

Vachon was inspired by the historical malting techniques used in various European countries to produce a range of base malts, each with a distinct character. The flavour of Frontenac malts is also impacted by the barley that Vachon chooses to use: “if you grow barley here in Québec it’s not going to be the same as barley from Alberta or Saskatchewan. Even if it’s the same variety, once you start malting it, you’ll have a different result.” Much like the grapes used for wine, barley grown in different regions will have a distinct character as a result of the local terroir.

This also means that Malterie Frontenac products are affected by variations in weather. Vachon recalls one year specifically, 2008, when there was really bad rain and little sun in the province. As a result, local barley had smaller kernels than usual. Once he started working with this barley, Vachon realized that in order to create malts that brewers could easily work with, he had to alter his technique. This change resulted in darker malts, which would then affect the colour of beers that were brewed with it. “It was a notch darker than it should have been normally,” says Vachon “we had to explain it to the brewers and they were quite understanding.”

When asked how his malts generally come through in the finished beer, Vachon explains that the use of Québec malts, combined with his malting techniques result in a cereal taste in the beer: “You can taste that it’s made with grain. That’s one of the main things that comes out.” Vachon also feels that his malts contribute mouthfeel, adding “a bit of richness to the taste” when compared to beers brewed with malts produced by larger companies.

The MaltBroue team is more direct when asked about how its malts compare to others on the market: “it’s better!” says maltster Dany Bastille with a chuckle. He then goes on to explain that in malting, like in brewing, if two producers use the exact same technique and base ingredients, they will still end up with two distinct products. Co-owner Cindy Rivard adds: “It’s a MaltBroue Malt. People sometimes try to compare our malts to those produced by other malt houses, but you can’t. If a brewer were to ask us to recreate a malt from a European malt house, we couldn’t. Our barley is from Québec. It’s a different barley and it results in a different malt.”

The impact of Québec barley on the flavour of MaltBroue malts is less pronounced than it is with Malterie Frontenac. This is because MaltBroue produces specialty malts. These specialty malts are kilned at higher temperatures, and a significant portion of their flavour comes from the kilning as well as the caramelization of their sugars. Still, the choice to use local grains means that Bastille is constantly adapting his technique: “we don’t blend batches” he explains “depending on the season, barley kernels will absorb humidity differently.” To ensure a consistency of product, Bastille has to run test batches for each new season and make small tweaks to his malting technique.

Another factor that contributes to the distinct character of MaltBroue products is the fact that Dany Bastille designed and created his own malting equipment. Before founding MaltBroue, which produced its first malts in 2008, Bastille was a mechanical engineer. When his father retired, an opportunity arose for him and Rivard to move from Montréal to lovely Témiscouata-sur-le-Lac, 30 minutes away from the New Brunswick border, in the East end of Québec, and take over the family farm. The original plan was to have a farm-to-table operation that included growing grain, malting it and the brewing beer with it. While researching the project, the pair noticed that there were no specialty malts being made in Québec and decided to focus on growing and malting their own barley.

Not all of the malts produced by MaltBroue are made from barley grown on-site; the farm isn’t big enough to produce enough barley to meet the current demand. MaltBroue is doing so well, in fact, that an expansion is currently underway, which will double and eventually triple the malt house’s production. The team’s first concern with the expansion will be to make sure that they can supply their current customers consistently and comfortably. They are also looking into developing wheat, rye and buckwheat-based specialty malts as well as expanding their distribution to other areas. For the time being, their customer base is mostly in Québec.

A number of breweries in Québec have chosen to integrate Malterie Frontenac and MaltBroue malts in their recipes. Jonathan Lafortune, president and brewmaster at Les Trois Mousquetaires craft brewery, uses a range of Québec malts in his brews: “we use them really because they are from Québec.” he states “We like the idea of our products reflecting the local terroir and supporting the local economy.” Lafortune had no problem integrating MaltBroue specialty malts into his recipes. He also uses Malterie Frontenac malts, which he admits were a bit more of a challenge. Because these are base malts, and therefore used in larger quantities and also because they retain more of the original character of the Québec grains, the integration of these malts had more impact on his beers. His brewing team had to work to achieve the desired flavours in each of the Trois Mousquetaires brands.

“The good thing,” clarifies Lafortune “is that the flavour of Québec barley comes through in the final product. I like the personality it’s brought to our beers. It’s different.” Lafortune describes the flavour of Malterie Frontenac malts as rustic, with a more straightforward grain note. Sébastien Valade, co-owner and brewmaster at Microbrasserie Le Naufrageur, adds: “With Malterie Frontenac grains, the beers have a bit more body and smoothness that other malts don’t provide.” He explains that Frontenac malts are more flavourful and result in a fuller beer when used normally. If a brewer would like to brew a drier beer with a less pronounced grain flavour using these malts, adjustments have to be made during the brewing process.

For some breweries, the integration of Québec malts poses a challenge. Dieu du Ciel! brewmaster, Jean-François Gravel, explains: “It’s known that Québec barley has a particular signature that shines through regardless of where it is malted.” Gravel supervised a number of test batches at the brewery, to integrate Québec malt into Dieu du Ciel! brands but, in the end, a decision was made to stay with the original ingredients for the time being. Still, Gravel is curious to see what malts will emerge as the Québec barley industry evolves. Frédéric Tremblay, president of Microbrasserie Charlevoix had a similar experience “when we use those malts, they taste different and give a different flavour profile to our beers.” Because his brands are well established and have been on the market for years, Tremblay doesn’t feel it would be wise to change their flavour profile. He is, however, looking into blending a small portion of Québec grain into his beer recipes in order to support the local malting industry without compromising flavour.

Tremblay’s initiative is very much in keeping with the collaborative spirit within the Québec brewing industry. At the end of the day, it’s all about working together to support the local industry. Jonathan Lafortune concedes: “We all had to make an adjustment. The malt houses also had to adapt and improve. They are small and can’t have the same stability of product as larger malt houses that have been around for hundreds of year. The micro maltsters are always striving to improve their products and they need our support in order to continue producing malts. We’re happy to help them out.” Sébastien Valade’s attitude sums it up best: “We feel that beer should be a local product and if we import our ingredients from elsewhere, then it’s not really reflecting our local terroir, is it?”

But what does it taste like?…

Are you curious to experience what micro-malted grains contribute to beer? To get acquainted with Malterie Frontenac grain, try the Les Trois Mousquetaires Kellerbier or Malauze Blonde by microbrasserie Le Naufrageur. MaltBroue malts, meanwhile, can be enjoyed in Les Trois Mousquetaires’ Sticke Alt or Doppelbock as well as in Le Naufrageur’s Colborne Amber or Corte-Real Pale Ale.

Meanwhile in BC…

There is actually a third micro-maltster in Canada. Gambrinus Malting Corporation, located in Armstrong BC, has been producing a range of malts since 1992. Gambrinus products include base malts, specialty malts and organic malts sourced from B.C. and Alberta. Gambrinus malts are used by craft breweries both in Canada and in the U.S.A. Like its Québec counterparts Frontenac and MaltBroue, Gambrinus Malting is doing very well and will be undergoing a big expansion this year.

So what is malting, anyway?

What maltsters do is prepare grains for brewing. Through a series of steps, the maltster triggers enzymes in the grain that will later convert the starches in those grains into sugar, when the brewer steeps them in water at the brewery. As a second step, the maltster then kilns (cooks) the grain in order to achieve a specific colour and flavour.

Publication: TAPS Magazine

Date Published: February 2013

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

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