Big Brewery, Little Maltster

Tim Matthews of Oskar Blues is working to help solve a “major illiteracy problem in malt” by swapping out a portion of his brewery's commercial malt for stuff from small, local maltsters.

John Holl Sep 23, 2019 - 7 min read

Big Brewery, Little Maltster Primary Image

Tim Matthews wishes brewers were thinking more about malt. As the longtime head brewer of Oskar Blues Brewery, and now the director of brewing operations for CANarchy—the brewery collective comprised of Oskar Blues, Cigar City, Three Weavers, and several others—Matthews has long been trying to get the most out of his malt, especially in Oskar Blues’s flagship, Dale’s Pale Ale.

Matthews has experimented with using craft malt in the past. When Oskar Blues released Beerito, a Mexican lager, it used about 5 percent craft malt for the 12,000-plus barrels the brewery produced.

Now Matthews has gone a step farther and started tinkering with the grain bill for Dale’s Pale Ale. At the brewery’s location in Austin, Texas, they have swapped out a percentage of base Munich malt, which had been coming from a commercial maltster, for some grown locally.

“This is really a microcosm of what we do with malt,” he says. Under the brewery’s ownership by Fireman Capitol, an investment firm, Matthews has been told to do “whatever it takes to make a competitive flavor and to follow the prerogative of the brewers.”


The Road to Local

In a conversation that started in 2016 between Matthews and Brandon Ade, the founder of Blacklands Malt in Leander, Texas, roughly 30 miles north of Austin, the two started talking about the possibility of using local malt in the beers produced from the Austin brewery.

“Doing something like that adds a bit of intimacy for the beer, the malt, and the maltster,” Matthews says. “That’s something that seems to be lacking. There is a major illiteracy problem in malt in craft beer.”

Working with local maltsters, he says, is a way to combat that because the local maltsters can get into the compounds and the processes and teach about malt styles and variabilities and how those affect the final product.

Blacklands’ Ade and Michael Harris, Oskar Blues’s head brewer in Austin, first started working together by incorporating Blacklands malt into a barleywine. Harris then used the local maltster’s product in the one-off specialty beers that come out of the brewery, about four or five per year.
After those successful excursions, Ade approached the brewery about doing something larger and floated the idea of using Blacklands Munich malt in Dale’s Pale Ale. It was a way, he said, “to capture something unique and authentic going on in Austin.”

But tinkering with a flagship is something completely different than tinkering with one-offs. Oskar Blues brews Dale’s at three locations, says Matthews—at its first brewery in Colorado, at the one in Texas, and at a third location in Brevard, North Carolina.

“For years, we’ve been making Dale’s taste a certain way. We always know what we’re trying to target, of course, but even with that, people still have different experiences. In Austin, it’s more of a malt biscuit flavor; it’s citrus notes out of Brevard; and more piney out of Colorado.” All three flavors are components of Dale’s, he says, and all are big flavors.


With that in mind and with the blessing from the ownership, Matthews and the brewing team started thinking about how they could improve upon the Dale’s recipe and make it unique to place. But playing with a flagship beer doesn’t happen overnight. According to the brewery, what followed were months of research and development and collaboration between the two teams, including the Oskar Blues’s lab, headed by Brian Roye. Eventually, the kiln schedule and recipe were dialed in to develop Brown Field 10 Texas Munich, which meets the color and toasty flavor profile required to brew Dale’s Pale Ale.

“The brewery isn’t just a factory. We want to have our cake and eat it, too. This is a way to make a beer local,” Matthews says. The Austin-specific Dale’s Pale Ale was released in September 2018.


“I don’t know of any other iconic flagships doing something like this,” says Matthews. “And we hope people will start coming into the taproom and saying, ‘I want something with Texas malt in it.’ It’s sustainable, and contributing back to a sustainable world is definitely important to us. This is a major way we can illustrate that.”

Matthews says that some of the other breweries in the CANarchy collective, including Squatters Craft Beers in Utah, are considering adding local malts to their beers, including one that uses 100 percent Blacklands malt. All told, he says, the brewery collective is using about 200,000 pounds of craft malt each year, and that could rise.

Matthews plans to give the same treatment to the Dale’s Pale Ale being made in Colorado and North Carolina, working with local craft maltsters to dial in their local Munich to replace the commercial malt currently being used. Already having a relationship with Troubadour Maltings in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Riverbend Malt House in the Tar Heel State should make that process easier.

“Craft maltsters aren’t able to produce all the malt that all of the brewers in the United States need, so the commercial maltsters aren’t going out of business. But this is a good step in the direction of a deeper beer experience,” he says. “Craft malting has given all these brewers a chance to have this relationship. If you talk with your maltsters, you’re going to learn a lot and possibly become a better brewer.”

About the First Little Malt House in Texas
Blacklands Malt of Leander, Texas, is that state's first modern malt house. Brandon Ade and his wife, Samantha, started it in 2012 “because I wanted to sit in a bar with my buddies, have a beer, and know that the malt in that beer was made in Texas,” says Brandon. “I wasn’t going to wait around for someone else to figure that out. People should be able to be proud that these products were made right here.”

Ade found farmers in west Texas growing barley for feed, collaborated with Texas A&M University on barley trials, and finally realized his dream of Texas-grown barley malt in 2016. The company uses equipment custom-designed and built in the United States and sources grain only from Texas and Colorado.

John Holl is the author of Drink Beer, Think Beer: Getting to the Bottom of Every Pint, and has worked for both Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® and All About Beer Magazine.