By Eric Peterson | Nov 30, 2020
Malt for brewers and distillers
McLean's reputation as the founder of Magnolia Brewing Company and The Alembic, pacesetters in San Francisco's craft brewing and cocktail bar scenes, respectively, precedes him.
In those efforts, McLean says he was "always about sustainable and local sourcing and knowing whether it was from near or far," and points to a premium English malt he favored while running Magnolia. "I built a lot of Magnolia recipes around that one grain," he says, and laments, "The bummer was it was from 6,000 miles away."
With Admiral, he cuts that down to the distance to the Sacramento Valley and Klamath River Basin, where almost all of his suppliers are located.
"The central point of our brand identity is California-grown grain," says McLean. "Grown in California, malted by us in California. The whole point is to connect brewers and distillers with California agriculture."
He continues, "Especially in craft beer, everybody wraps themselves up in the local flag: 'Support your local brewery.' That's the branding that's front and center at almost every brewery's marketing, that it's the local brewery, local to the neighborhood or town or state or whatever. But you can only be so local if you're not actually making the main product you make using local ingredients, and that's the part we've been trying to change."
He teamed with Ron Silberstein, founder of ThirstyBear Organic Brewery, and Curtis Davenport, a farmer with malting experience, to launch a locally focused maltster in Admiral. "We all went over to England together and visited some old traditional malthouses in October 2015," says McLean.
After a two-year buildout in Alameda, Admiral launched in 2017. The operation utilizes floor malting to produce malted barley, wheat, rye, and oats. The traditional method allows steeped grain to germinate for several days spread out on a stone or concrete floor instead of inside now-status quo matling vessels to produce sugar for fermentation.
"It's very rare outside of the British Isles," says McLean of floor malting. "It's inefficient. It's kind of archaic. It's the middle step of three steps of malting -- germination, that's what takes place on the floor. It's a real thin bed, five or six inches deep, spread out over a very large surface area, so it takes up a lot of space. That's hard to do in an area where rent's high, like ours. It's very labor intensive -- it's a lot of raking and pushing and turning and plowing by hand."
But it also produces more complex flavors, he adds. "There are brewers, myself included, who favor some of the subtle tastes and complexity of flavor that comes from floor malting."
The verdict isn't in yet on the exact science behind these tastes, notes McLean, but "speculation" holds that less exposure to air, better dispersal of heat, and a "microbiome" on the malting floor foster more complex flavors and aromas.
The operation currently includes two malting floors, about 6,000 square feet combined, and expansion plans call for another 8,000-square-foot floor to come online in early 2021, significantly bolstering capacity. Outdoor silos and grain-handling automation will likewise add efficiencies.
Admiral's facility is home to a tenant (and a customer), Almanac Beer Company, and The Rake, a pub that showcases beers and spirits made with Admiral's products.
More than 95 percent of Admiral's customers are in California, including about 300 breweries (almost 100 are regular customers) and 40 distilleries (20 are regular customers).
"It's been a pretty steady upward climb," says McLean of sales growth. "Even through COVID, our sales fell off a cliff temporarily, but they're back and growth is back again."
McLean says he's not innovating as much as he's reviving a lost art. "There was a malting industry in Northern California up until about the '60s," says McLean. "The last vestiges of the NorCal malting industry was a malthouse in San Francisco called Bauer & Schweitzer. That closed in 1981. In a sense, we're trying to bring something back and not invent something new here. . . . There was more beer being made in San Francisco in the '50s than there is now, if you look at just the city. So the malthouses supplied all those breweries, but as they closed, those malthouses lost their customers."
"The funny thing about Bauer & Schweitzer, the cruel irony I guess it is, they probably hung on a little too long but one of the last sales they made was to Ken Grossman when he was starting Sierra Nevada. If they had hung on a little longer, they could have ridden the wave back up."
Challenges: "We're out there pushing a premium product . . . when it's harder and harder to make ends meet and there's a lot of cost-cutting," says McLean. "Some brewers just see [base malt] as a commodity and a sugar source."
Opportunities: "Distilling seems to be a pretty exciting opportunity," says McLean, citing larger orders.
The introduction of new labels like California single-malt whiskey, he adds, "only helps us," he adds. "If that picks up steam, and there's a big push for California single-malt, we're pretty well-positioned for that."
He doesn't see the California-centric market changing: Fresh malt "is kind of like freshly baked bread or freshly roasted coffee, so there's that, but they're also getting the marketing cachet of being able to share with their customers that they're supporting local agriculture and using grain from the local community."
Needs: Admiral needs a balance between "sales versus production," McLean says, especially with the expansion. "Right now, we're making malt as fast as we can and we're selling it as fast as we can, but who knows how that's going to work out over time with the new capacity?"
He also says the company needs a systems upgrade: "We don't have an ERP system right now -- I think we'd like one."