By Bob Townsend
Though it doesn’t have a sexy brewhouse or a cool taproom, Riverbend Malt House is one the most compelling destinations in the ever-growing “Beer City” of Asheville, North Carolina, offering visitors a rare glimpse of an ancient art and an up-close experience of one of the core elements of fermentation science.
As purveyors of locally grown, floor-malted barley, wheat, and rye, Riverbend is unique in the South. But it can be counted among the 60 some small malt houses found across the United States and Canada, with many more in planning.
The company was founded in 2010 by two scientist friends, biologist Brent Manning and geologist Brian Simpson, who once worked together at an environmental engineering firm in Wilmington, North Carolina, before making their way west to the mountains in search of new opportunities.
“Asheville is a bring-your-own-job kind of place,” Manning explains one day while conducting a tour through the rather dark, ramshackle building that currently houses the operation.
Visiting various rooms reveals the relatively simple but painstaking step-by-step stages of malting — from receiving the grain from farmers, to steeping, germinating, drying, and kilning, and, finally, cleaning and packaging the finished products.
“Everybody knows hops,” Manning says by way of introducing the process that is his passion. “If you ask people on the street, they’d probably tell you that the only damn thing in beer is hops and water.”
But his tongue-in-cheek point is well-taken. Without the malt that the yeast devours during fermentation, beer would be flat, colorless, hop-flavored water, devoid of alcohol content and natural carbonation.
“If we do our job correctly, the brewer knows what color the beer is going to be and how strong it’s going to be,” Manning says.
Beyond those fundamental facts, though, a couple of things in particular set Riverbend apart from most maltsters.
One is its partnership with Southeastern farmers, who grow regional varieties of winter barley to be harvested in June, as opposed to the common spring barley grown in the Midwest and Northwest and harvested in the fall.
Manning claims that gives his malt a distinguishable flavor profile with a Southern terroir that can be detected in the beers brewed with it.
“This was really exciting for us to discover, because we wanted that wine language to translate to the world of malting,” Manning says. “We wanted a different variety, grown in a different place, to make a great product.”
More peculiar and utterly fascinating to observe is Riverbend’s dedication to floor-malting, a labor-intensive method of producing malt that was standard practice before the Industrial Revolution.
Waxing seriously scientific for a spell, Manning says the crux of malting is to “manage the enzymatic digestion of the cell walls inside of each kernel as they’re converted into a starch or simple sugar.”
The mystical part comes in stopping germination precisely at the point when it’s modified to be most useful for brewing. Manning calls it “a kind of a dance.”
And that’s where the beauty of floor-malting comes alive, with its laborious ballet of workers dragging heavy, long-handled rakes across layers of wet grain arranged on the concrete floor, and shoveling it into the kiln at just the right time, according to the type of grain and the style of malt.
The result, as practiced in Europe and the United Kingdom for centuries, is a deep, rich, aromatic flavor and intensity some have referred to as old-fashioned.
Riverbend’s first big project was connecting with New Belgium Brewing to provide rye malt for an IPA dubbed RyePA. It was vividly described by New Belgium as what happens “when you pair gobs of their spicy rye with heaps of spicy hops.”
Since then, breweries including Sierra Nevada, Wicked Weed, Hi-Wire, Burial, Twin Leaf, Bhramari, Full Steam, and Steel String have come calling for both base and specialty malts used to brew everything from wild and sour beers to lagers.
Right now, Riverbend is regularly producing five different malts, including its original Heritage, Pale, Pilsner, and Appalachian Wheat.
Carolina Rye is a bold malt produced using an heirloom variety called Wrens Abruzzi that has been grown in the South for over 200 years. Another discovery is called Seashore Black. It comes from Edisto Island, South Carolina, where it’s been cultivated for seven generations, but can be traced back to South America, according to Manning. Unlike most rye, it’s not as dry or peppery, but more herbal, rather like wheat, with a balance of spicy notes. Hi-Wire has used it for its Holy City Black Rye Lager with good results.
As for the future, Riverbend has a much needed new facility in the works that should be up and running by the end of the year.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to grow in the business,” Manning says. “And getting into the craft whiskey world is a whole other thing. It takes about two pounds of malt to make a gallon of craft beer. To make a bourbon, it’s about three pounds per gallon. And for an all-malt whiskey, like Scotch, it’s seven or eight pounds. So the malt appetite that craft whiskey presents could dwarf craft beer.”