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Barn Owl Malt

Photography by Daniel Vaughan

Reintroducing Traditional Grain Malting to the Ontario Craft Brewing Industry

Barn Owl Malt’s name, carefully selected by owners Devin and Leslie Huffman, speaks to a different era in agriculture, when mixed farming created a habitat in which barn owls could thrive. Modern farming practices have changed the habitat to the point where there are fewer than five pairs of barn owls remaining in Ontario.

When they launched their company on Zion Road in Belleville in 2015, Devin and Leslie wanted a name that reflected the agricultural nature of their work, but also spoke to their approach to business, which embraces the traditional style of malt manufacturing and production that would have been commonly seen in the early 1800s when barn owls were also prevalent in the region.

The Huffmans met while working in the forestry industry, relocating several times throughout western Canada to access available work. When they decided to settle down and start their own business, they purchased a farm property belonging to Devin’s grandparents.

They considered a few different farm-based ventures before landing on malt production. “We were keen on craft beer and were following the industry and even had taken a bit of time to look at a farm brewery possibility, but what stood out was the supply chain,” says Devin. “We realized, for all these local craft breweries, there were no local grain options. That was an opportunity to pioneer an industry; something that wasn’t formulaic. We had a lot of freedom to be creative and develop the concept.”

Malt is an essential ingredient in beer. The malting of the source grain (usually barley) produces enzymes and sugars that feed yeast in the brewing process and contribute to the body and colour of the end product. Hops and water are the other two primary ingredients.

Barn Owl Malt’s decision to use the traditional floor malting technique was driven by a couple of factors: It allowed Devin and Leslie to enter the malting business without a significant capital equipment investment that would have been required for mechanical malting; it also allowed the couple to have their business located on their farm versus moving it to an industrial area and commuting to work every day. With four-year-old and two-year-old boys, having their business close to home was highly desirable.

Prior to working in forestry, Devin had studied engineering. His skills were put to good use designing and building much of the equipment for the malt house, including the kiln. Leslie had studied horticulture which also came in handy. “Once we realized we were going to go forward with the malt house, we did some malting-specific training,” says Devin. “I went to the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre and trained as a maltster there and then did a lot of independent study and research.”

“The technique we’re using is the traditional, historical method of malting,” says Leslie. “We were reading books reprinted from the 1800s drawing on all kinds of old information. We have a unique collection of books we’ve taken bits and pieces from here and there and are still consulting all the time.”

Devin and Leslie originally thought the floor malting technique would be a way to get the business up and running until they could afford to invest in mechanical systems, but the more they used the traditional technique, the more they appreciated how it differentiates the finished product. “We really became much more passionate about floor malting,” says Devin. “There’s a value-added aspect in the sense it is a traditional method; it shows well, and it offers some back story to the product.”

“At the same time, the biological process, the metabolic process, is different when it’s malted on the floor as compared to a pneumatic system, so we create a very distinct product,” he says. “That helps us to maintain a differentiation in the market. It lets us compete with the higher value, specialty products as opposed to competing with the lowest value products.”

The back story of each malt Devin and Leslie refer to relates to traceability. The grain used at Barn Owl Malt primarily comes from Prince Edward County, the Bay of Quinte Region, Ottawa, and the Kingston/Napanee area.

Leslie emphasizes the different grains they bring in are always kept separate from each other. “We know the variety of wheat. We know the year that it was grown. We know where it was grown. We know how it was grown. We know who grew it. We have all those pieces that are otherwise completely unknown when you buy the malt used to make beer. For the local brewers, I think it’s really key information when they’re making a local product. It completes the story to be able to tell where that product came from start to finish.”

She adds, “We design a specific malting recipe based on each grain, each grain’s stream, and we make a malt based on that recipe. The kiln schedule is designed specifically for that as well.”

More than 20 craft breweries use malt made by Barn Owl Malt, including Mackinnon Brothers Brewing Co. in Bath, Ontario. Brothers Ivan and Daniel Mackinnon set up a brewery on their 200-plus-year-old family farm with a vision of making beer using hops, wheat, and barley grown on their own farm. They were thrilled to discover Barn Owl Malt.

“We would not be able to do what we are doing here at our brewery if it wasn’t for Devin and Leslie, and that’s not an exaggeration at all,” says Ivan. “When we started in 2014, the next closest malt house was on the other side of Quebec City, so it was not feasible to truck barley out to have it malted. The fact that they are there, and they make really good malt, and they’re willing to work with us to do this custom malting – it allows us to produce a couple of different styles that are 100 per cent from the farm. We were not using any of our own ingredients until they came on line.”

The process of making malt involves three distinct steps over a six to 10-day period. The first step is steeping; hydrating the grain to start it germinating. At Barn Owl Malt, this is done in two large steel tanks. The second step is controlled germination – in Devin and Leslie’s operation, that happens on the floor of the malt house. “During that period, we manage the temperature and availability of fresh air,” says Devin. “That regulates the rate of germination, which is a process involving modifying the starch reserves inside the grain.” While on the floor, Devin and Leslie agitate the bed of grain to keep rootlets from forming and matting up the grain, and to release the heat generated by the malting process.

Says Devin, “Different grains have different behaviour. Even the same variety of barley, for example, from two different growing years, behaves very differently on the floor. For every specific grain, we have to treat it a little bit differently on the floor, so we can optimize the performance. If a grain tends to germinate very aggressively, it will produce more heat, so we may have to turn it more regularly, spread it more thinly, or adjust the moisture content.”

Understanding these nuances of grain behaviour have taken Devin and Leslie time and experimentation. They have a small laboratory in the malt house where they run tests on each new grain source to assess its rate of water uptake and determine the ideal germination time.

The last step in the malting process is drying. At Barn Owl Malt, this is done in a wood-fired kiln Devin designed and built behind the malt house.

“The different drying temperatures and times will affect the flavour profile and the colour profile of the finished product,” says Devin. “There are subtle differences in the first two steps in developing the different products, but the kiln really drives that differentiation of product.”

Different malts are identified by grain source (90 per cent of the grain used in beer is barley), and by colour. The various colour extracts of malt are identified by percentages. The higher the percentage, the darker the beer. Says Leslie, “The brewers will use those colours and place their orders based on the goal – what kind of beer they’re trying to produce.”

Adds Devin, “We offer 1.5, 2.5, 3.5 and then 10.5 per cent. If a brewer wanted something in-between those numbers, they can blend malts to hit those values.”

Devin and Leslie often get requests for malts made from grains other than barley, including wheat, rye, and even spelt, buckwheat, sunflowers, corn, and oats. “We have plans to expand our barley malt offerings,” says Devin. “We’re going to put in a smokehouse so we can start doing some smoked malts. Eventually, we’d like to get a roasting system to we can do a full range of roasted specialty malts.”

Leslie notes roasting will really change the colour offerings of their malts. “Right now, with the kiln we have, we can produce malts that would make a light pilsner all the way through to a red amber. Anything darker than that, we wouldn’t be able to produce without a roaster.”

The floor malting also has an impact on the flavour profile of Barn Owl Malt’s products.

“There’s a distinctiveness to the flavour which comes from the floor malting process,” says Devin. “When we’ve designed our recipes for the products, we’ve intentionally avoided trying to replicate products already on the market. We’ve made a very strong effort to create distinct flavour characters so we’re not necessarily substitutable. Then there’s an element of terroir; the growing year affects the profile of the barley and, because we don’t blend, we’re able to work with specific varieties. The genetics of the different varieties affect flavour differently.”

“That’s something that’s unique,” he adds. “Most of the products coming from North American malt houses are blended varieties so you lose appreciation for the subtleties of the different genetics.”

Devin and Leslie also pay close attention to quality control in the malting process. A certain size of grain kernel is also important to ensure it can be properly crushed or ground by the brewers. There’s a screening done by Health Canada laboratories to assess levels of toxin that may be found on the grains. A separate contract laboratory is used to evaluate protein content of the grain, since high protein levels are problematic for brewers.

“On our finished product, we work with a lab based out of New York that does malt analysis,” adds Devin. “That’s where we get the specifications with respect to extract and colour and enzyme potential.”

​Devin and Leslie are the main employees of Barn Owl Malt. They sometimes use Devin’s father as a delivery man to take bags of malt to the breweries, but they prefer to even do the deliveries themselves wherever possible. Says Devin, “It’s a personal touch and it’s an opportunity for the brewers to have direct contact with a maltster. We’ve dealt with some customers who have been in the brewing industry for 30 years and I’m the first maltster they’ve ever met.”

“A real part of our value proposition is that personal relationship with the processors,” he adds. “It lets us address issues. With some of our regular customers, if they want something adjusted one way or another based on the profiles we’re sending them, we can make small changes. I think that’s a nice added value to what we offer.”

Ivan Mackinnon certainly recognizes the value that Barn Owl Malt offers, “No one was really making high quality, Ontario-grown malt before they started. In my opinion, they’re still one of the only ones who are consistently making really good malt. They’ve done a great job of branding and positioning themselves in the market. I think they really hit the nail on the head.”