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December 13, 2019
Last updated

How Beer and Whiskey Malt is Made

Owner of Clawhammer Supply

Can you name all of the primary ingredients used to make beer? How about a spirit like bourbon? Beer is comprised primarily of barley, hops, yeast and water. Bourbon is typically corn barley and rye. Bonus question. Do you know what is special about the barley used to make both of these tasty beverages? The answer is that the barley used for brewing and distilling is typically, if not always, malted. Malting is the term for grain that has been partially germinated and then heated and dried for preservation. This process is completed by a maltster, generally at a malt house.

Any cereal grain can be malted and it goes something like this. Grain is moistened and warmed, which causes it to sprout. The seed starts to produce enzymes that convert starch into sugar. However, it isn't immediately used to make beer or whiskey mash. The grain gets heated and dried before the enzymes have a chance to complete their mission. This halts starch conversion but preserves the integrity of the newly created enzymes, which are used later in the brewing process for beer and spirits.

Producing malted barley is actually a bit more complicated than this and it's also a fascinating process. So we took a trip to Riverbend Malt House in Asheville, NC, a malt house that prides itself in making malt for craft beer and spirits. With breweries such as New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, and Oskar Blues on their list of customers, chances are you’ve already had a beer with their malt in it. Read on to learn about Riverbend and the malting process.




Brian Simpson and Brent Manning started Riverbend Malt House in 2007. At this time, there were very few craft malt houses in the United States. Riverbend spawned from this shortage, but also from a desire to support local agriculture with a sustainable business.


Brian Simpson - Riverbend Co-Founder


Brent Manning - Riverbend Co-Founder

Watch this video to learn about Riverbend and the malting process

The Malting Process

According to Brian, there are 5 steps to malting grain.

  1. Sourcing
  2. Cleaning and Grading
  3. Steeping
  4. Germination
  5. Kilning

Most people overlook sourcing, cleaning and grading and talk only about steeping, germination, and kilning. The first two steps of the malting process are extremely important and involve sourcing grain from a farmer, and then cleaning and grading the grain based on its quality. The grain that Riverbend sources is of the highest quality and has already been cleaned and graded. Once the grain arrives at Riverbend it is ready for them to start the steeping process.


In the steep tank, grain is submerged in water. Riverbend puts their grain through three cycles involving a submersion period and then an air rest period. Steeping the grain causes it to start germinating, or growing rootlets as if it were planted in the ground.


Riverbend's steep tank


Once the grain starts germinating, it’s put onto the floor of a separate climate controlled room. The germination room is kept around 60-62 degrees Fahrenheit and is very humid. 


Kentucky Distiller's Malt - Day 3 of Germination


While the grain is germinating, it’s turned with a rake. This keeps it from clumping up and releases CO2 and other gases that are produced during germination.


Emmet Raking Grain


After the germination process, the grain is put into a kiln. The goal here is to stop germination in order to give the grain color and flavor. The first step is drying the grain out with air, no heat is applied at first. Removing moisture is what stops the germination process, not adding heat. The grain goes through a curing process once it’s dry. This is where the color and flavor of the finished malt is created.


 Riverbend's Kiln

After kilning, the grain can be considered malt.

Floor Malting Vs. Automated, Pneumatic Driven Malting

The previously described process is traditionally referred to as the floor malting method and is completely manual. The other half of Riverbend’s facility is dedicated to a mostly automated and pneumatic driven system. This automatic system revolves around a pneumatic steep tank and GKV, or Germination-Kiln Vessel. 


 The Other Half of Riverbend's Facility

In the automatic process, grain is put into a pneumatic steep tank and then transferred to a GKV. 


Pneumatic Steep Tank




Grain Germinating in a GKV

In a GKV, grain goes through the same germination and kilning processes, but all in one vessel. The automatic process is unique due to its ability to create custom malts and emulate historical malts.


After kilning, the grain still has all the rootlets that it grew during the germination process. In order to knock these off, all grain is sent through a rootlet auger. From the rootlet auger the grain goes into a seed cleaner. The seed cleaner separates any waste material and puts out a uniform final product.


Kilned Grain Is Stored in a Hopper (right) and Goes Through the Orange Conveyor, Leading it to the Rootlet Auger

 A Seed Cleaner


Clean Grain Leaving Seed Cleaner

During the cleaning process, a sample is pulled every 5-10 minutes. These samples later go through in house sensory tests that are used to test the quality of malt before it goes to customers. 


Taking a Sample From Seed Cleaner

Riverbend uses the hot steep method that was developed by the American Society of Brewing Chemists to test their malt. When following this method to assess malt quality, you basically make a malt tea. This “tea” is then tasted and assessed based off of its flavor and color.


Equipment Used For The Hot Steep Method

The final step? Packaging. Once the grain is clean, its put into bags and sent out to homebrew stores and craft breweries. 


Grain goes into a bag


Through a Sower


And Then Down a Conveyor Belt To Be Stacked on a Pallet


Riverbend focuses on craft breweries in the Southeast and has made malts for breweries such as Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Oskar Blues, Wicked Weed, Burial Beer and Fonta Flora. If you ever visit Asheville, most breweries in the South Slope will have a beer on tap that uses Riverbend Malt.

TL;DR - Malting is basically wetting grain, getting it to germinate and then drying it back down so a brewer can use it in a mash.

Kyle Brown is the owner of Clawhammer Supply, a small scale distillation and brewing equipment company which he founded in 2009. His passion is teaching people about the many uses of distillation equipment as well as how to make beer at home. When he isn't brewing beer or writing about it, you can find him at his local gym or on the running trail.

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