Leander malt house cultivates quest for Texas identity in local beer

Twice a day, Brandon Ade and J.C. Salgado take turns climbing into the stainless steel belly of a gigantic tank filled with a few thousand pounds of green malt. They have to dig their way through the mounds.

With their backs bent over a shovel, they systematically shift the tiny grains from one side to another until the entire bed of malt has been “turned” — moved over and around itself so that the grains don’t clump together and grow too quickly. It’s a hot, arduous process that can take up to an hour, but it’s a necessary part of running a small malt house like Ade’s.

He was once able to turn the malt in 21 minutes, a record. Normally, though, anyone trying it for the first time can’t complete a full row without feeling like keeling over.

To Ade, the hard physical labor is simply part of his job as the owner and founder of Leander-based Blacklands Malt, Texas’ only malt house. Since late 2013, he has been supplying brewers across Texas — and even one or two out of state, too — with locally malted barley, an essential ingredient in the beers they make. He’s also provided them malted wheat grown nearby in Hutto, although the barley is his main focus.

For all he’s accomplished since first beginning the business two years ago with his wife, Samantha, Ade doesn’t feel completely content to sit back and admire his work. That’s because his ultimate goal of providing locally grown and malted barley to brewers isn’t possible just yet.

“This barley is from Alamosa, Colorado,” he says as he dips the shovel into a mountain of grain. “My dream and business plan was and still is to have Texas-grown barley, but the realities of establishing a new agricultural crop in a state is quite challenging, as I naively discovered. I feel like I haven’t succeeded yet with what I want to do.”

He’s hoping that Texas farmers will recognize the financial benefit to growing barley again. They used to, he says, before they found wheat and corn to be more lucrative crops; at one point in the 1980s, they had up to 600,000 acres of barley planted here. But since then, “there’s been no market for barley in Texas until I came along,” he says.

To fix that, Ade is partnering with the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service to try and find the varieties of barley that grow best in Texas’ particular climate, which isn’t exactly suited for the crop. Growers have to plant in the winter and harvest in the spring, before the temperature climbs to an unbearable point. That’s when they keep running into another weather complication, Ade says: rainstorms that bog down the barley or make it sprout too soon.

However, he and an A&M Agrilife Extension specialist, Clark Neely, don’t plan on giving up their vision of seeing fields of barley ripple in a warm Texas breeze. This year, they’re experimenting with more than 800 barley varieties. Only a small amount of those gets harvested for malting at Blacklands Malt, Ade says — not enough to brew beer with.

“Where does the malt come from?”

Once, Ade had considered running a brewery. He was a homebrewer on weekends with his friends. He had gotten swept up in the passion of the craft beer movement. And he knew he didn’t want to continue with his engineering job forever.

But when he thought about brewing professionally, he was filled with a sense of unease that he has never felt as a maltster — wondering, he says, that if he joined the growing ranks of U.S. brewers, “the career would spoil it for me.”

One morning, he woke up with a question in his head that changed everything.

“‘Where does the malt come from that local brewers use?’ It was something I had never really given much thought to up until that point,” he says. “I started Googling ‘Texas malt,’ ‘malt in Texas,’ ‘barley in Texas’ — anything related to this idea. And there was nothing. No one was doing it; no one was sourcing barley or wheat or any other malt-quality crop in Texas to use for beer.”

By the next day, Ade knew “that was it,” he says. “I knew this was what I was going to do. Because no one else was going to do it, and I knew I wanted to have a beer made with Texas malt.”

He isn’t the only one. In the nearly two years since he turned his first batch of malt in the Blacklands malt house, he’s had a steady stream of customers interested in his Pale Moon two-row base malt, Red Winter Wheat or the handful of other malted varieties he offers. These breweries include regulars like Jester King and Black Star Co-op, which seek to make beers that reflect Texas.

For them, spending a little extra on malt that doesn’t come from one of the massive malt suppliers up north — whose systems, unlike Ade’s, are automated and much faster at producing a lot more malt — is worth it.

‘A sense of place’

Jester King, in particular, wants its beers to express the wild character of the Hill Country surrounding the brewery. Beers made there are spontaneously fermented using water from a nearby well, native wild yeast and Ade’s locally malted grains.

The farmhouse brewery chooses to make beers this way, Jester King founder Jeffrey Stuffings says, because “with the rise of modern brewing and the technical ability to make beer that can taste the same anywhere on earth, we think it’s important to embrace what’s immediately around us to make something with individuality and character.”

“A sense of place, I think that’s what they call it,” Ade says. “They want their beer to reflect the region it’s made in, and in a lot of ways, we celebrate that same philosophy.”

Business has been good enough — thanks to his eager customers and a grant or two — that Ade hired Salgado earlier this year to help him around the malt house. The heavy lifting required for their daily duties — which includes getting the barley steeped in water, letting it germinate and develop the enzymes needed for making beer, and firing up the kiln to dry out the grain into full-fledged malt — is “simple, honest work.”

When Ade finally climbs out of the germination tank, the tiny grains that cling to his sweatpants, and his boots fall to the floor with every step he takes. His two dogs, who accompany him most days to the malt house, are there waiting for him below, sniffing for those dropped bits of food. They know it’ll always be there because he will be, turning the malt so that one day it can be beer.

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