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Students pop cap on brewing bottleneck

Miniaturized malter opens up barley research options


For the Capital Press

Students at Oregon State University have made brewing history by developing a machine that malts barley in quantities suitable for research and experimentation.

"The minimalter helps connect the barley breeding program to the fermentation science program," said Pat Hayes, who has directed OSU's barley research for more than 20 years.

Hayes and Jeff Clawson, who manages the school's pilot brewery, and colleague Tom Shellhammer, who works in the food science and technology department, realized that if they could make malt in quantities for test brewing they could accelerate the assessment of new barley varieties. Results could benefit local farmers and brewers.

The problem was size. They needed a certain quantity of malt.

Great Western Malting in Vancouver, Wash., the nearest commercial production facility, has a minimum batch of 350 pounds. That amount would be protracted and expensive experimental growing operation, Hayes said. An agricultural research lab in Wisconsin produces small batches of malt of less than a pound.

The new machine produces about 150 pounds at a time, the right amount to use for one test brewing batch.

Under the direction of graduate student Josef Hortnagl, a team of mechanical engineering students took on the malting challenge as their senior design project.

"Our goal was to incorporate all the processes, including soaking the barley, germinating and roasting it, into one machine," Hortnagl said.

Last fall students Tyler Froeming, Eric Sunderland, Curtis Barnard and Aaron Mason created the preliminary design and manufacturing plan. Over the winter they built a prototype and started testing it. During the spring they refined it.

Test runs are focused now on making consistent malt.

"Great Western provided us with a ton of their barley, we make a malt using the same grain, and send it to them for comparison," Hayes said. The goal is to replicate it exactly.

"You can have the best malting barley, but if you don't make it properly, the beermaker's life is hell," Hayes said.

The minimalter has attracted attention from regional craft brewers like Rogue, corporate giants like Anheuser-Busch, and individuals and business development concerns including the Port of Skagit in Washington state and the Grain Millers in Eugene, Ore.

Individuals and organizations are able to use the minimalter for a fee that covers the cost of operation. Hayes said home brewers might not be interested since it will likely be more expensive that the going rate for malt -- about $1 a pound.

In exchange for an appropriate donation to the Agriculture Research Foundation, interested parties will receive the design and operating manuals, manufacturing plans and blueprints.

The final cost for the minimalter was around $40,000, Hayes said. But, he said, it's invaluable for teaching and research.


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