Inside a Czech Floor Malthouse

My post last week about barley breeding has led to a little flurry of activity on the subject, and I just finished an enlightening interview with Seth Klann of Mecca Grade Estate Malt. There will be more on that to come. But it connects back with one of my most important stops in Europe, and one I've never blogged about.

The Ferdinand Brewery in Benešov, south of Prague has been malting their own barley for over a hundred years, and the way they prepare the malt and the barleys they use look remarkably like the approach Americans are now trying to revive. Ferdinand is also the source of Weyermann's Floor-Malted Bohemian Pilsner Malt, which is available here in the US (Patrick and I used it on a recent helles). I am working on a project I hope will become a book, and it revolves around that visit. If it seems a bit formal for my usual blogspeak, that's why. By the way, the visit was made possible by Max Bahnson, the Pivni Filosof, who arranged the visit and translated for me. Thanks, Max!


A few traditional malthouses still exist, mostly in the UK and Czech Republic. They take advantage of natural refrigeration—winter—and are tended with implements like the one David Mareš was dragging through a bed of barley. We were in the cellar of Pivovar Ferdinand in Benešov, 30 miles south of Prague in the Czech Republic. Barrel vaults ran lengthwise across the ceiling, supported by arches and columns painted safety yellow, exposing thousands of square feet of stone floor. The vast space was checkerboarded with different plots of germinating barley at different stages; they were separated by small channels so the workers could move about. Mareš wielded what looked like an iron rake with three thick prongs, except that the tines poked upward, like fingers, out of the grain.

About a thousand years ago, some breweries became more specialized, moved to town centers, and left the fields behind. This created the need for other specialists to prepare the malt, and professional maltings started appearing. By the 20th century, breweries maintaining their own maltings were becoming scarce. As a consequence, most countries eventually lost that connection between maltster and brewer, but not the Czechs—where malt is especially important to the way they make beer.

Ferdinand is one of those remaining brewery/malthouses. The two operations are separate; this is also typical. On the brewery side there is a brewmaster, while the malthouse has a sladmistr—a “maltmaster.” It might seem that, since the facility’s ultimate purpose is the production of beer, while the malthouse merely provides one of the ingredients contributing to that end, that the brewmaster would be the king of the realm. To a Czech, causation is reversed. The entire process depends on superb malt, and this in turn depends on the sladmistr. At Ferdinand, that man is David Mareš.

Among the most important implements in a traditional malthouse like this are hands, which the sladmistr uses to determine the state of the malt. Mareš demonstrated by crouching over a bed that had been sitting for a few days and scooping up barleycorns sprouting tiny rootlets. He is able to judge the readiness of the malt by crushing it between his fingers and assessing the smudge of doughy starch left behind. On the malting floor, the barleycorns sprout those rootlets and ready themselves to grow into stalks of barley. In the ground, the seed would exhaust its food supply sending a shoot into the earth, but maltsters stop the process to make it available to brewers. The awakening plants generate heat, and the rake, which Mareš or one of his workers will use every twelve hours or so, cools the bed and slows the process.

There was a machine that can turn the barley—it looked like a cross between a riding lawnmower and a Zamboni—but at Ferdinand they don’t use it early in the process, when dynamic changes are happening inside the kernels. Mareš is an animated man whose excitement has tinges of evangelism and poetry. Using hand tools, he told me, via Max, “we have better control over the quality and it produces the kind of malt we want.” His hands dart around his body like swallows as he speaks. “We’ve always done it like this.”

By monitoring the progress of these incipient plants closely—crouching, smudging, and assessing—Mareš can tell precisely when the malt is ready. “We must stop germination right on time so the plant will not start processing the starch.”

Ferdinand’s malthouse is arranged according to the same logic brewing architects use: gravity. Rather than lift grain over and over again, it makes more sense to pour it down wherever possible. Raw barley is therefore delivered to the upper-most floor—an attic—where it’s stored after delivery by the farmers. Piles of grain, four feet high at their peak, form an orderly mountain range under the vented eaves, which are supported by exposed beams.

Once the barley is ready for malting, it’s weighed and sent to be soaked on the level below. The day we visited followed the season’s first snow. The crisp, dry air of the barley loft gave way to a bone-chilling cold in the soaking chamber. We sent little clouds out over the large iron cistern, the size of a hot tub, as we spoke. It was half-filled with barley, and cold water spilled from a pipe that pushed the level near the dented lip. The room was not much larger than the tank, with a few small windows letting in light through thick, whitewashed wall. Sound echoed. The malting process must take place at a narrow band between 50-54˚ F, and the malthouse has no air conditioning. That meant malting in the late fall and winter, on foot-stomping days like that one.

Barley must be well-soaked. Some malthouses abbreviate this process to just one day, but Mareš spends a leisurely three wetting and rewetting his barley. The cistern into which we peered was being refilled for the second time. It would need to have one more “air pause,” Mareš explained, and one more good soak before it can be drained and sent down to the germinating floor. Wetting it is not enough; you have to “let it breath” to get proper germination, he explained. Debris from the fields floats to the top, which can be easily removed.

From the soaking vats, the barley goes to the germinating floor until the kernels sprout little tails known among English-speakers as “chits.” Mareš called these “malt flowers,” and once they’re removed can be sold at a premium to farmers for feed. The final step, and one that dictated much about the kind of beers that can and have been brewed, is when the still-damp grain goes to the kiln where it will be slowly dried.

Most malt is dried before it is roasted, stopping off in a kiln like Ferdinand’s. Like everything else there, the kiln is a steampunk affair with mostly 19th century technology. The top of the two chambers is heated by the warmer lower chamber, and this is where the malt spends its first 18 hours drying, as the temperature rises slowly to 86˚ Fahrenheit.

After three bone-chilling stops, the kiln felt like a hearth on a winter day. Moist, warm air scented like breakfast cereal enveloped us, and we all crowded near the opening. Inside was another bed of grain. Running across the kiln was a ten-inch pipe, off of which paddles were mounted, like legs. As the pipe rolled back and forth across the room, the paddles twirled, stirring the malt as they went. The operation was self-evident and Mareš spoke only briefly before he was ready to move on. I asked one question and then another, attempting to manufacture a reason for us to stand there a bit longer, but soon we were on the move.

In the lower chamber, the temperature slowly rises again to 180˚ Fahrenheit over the course of another 18 hours, and then be held at that temperature for three more. All Mareš wants to do is dry the malt. He is not looking to add much color, nor the flavors that come from warmer kilning or roasting. To the rest of the world, what he’s making is known as “pilsner malt,” and it’s the palest variety available. (In the Czech Republic, it’s known simply as “pale malt.”)

Finally, the malt needs to cool and cure for 3-4 weeks before it can be used to brew beer or, since Ferdinand makes more than the brewery can use, be sold. When Ferdinand was a bigger brewery, it was able to use all the malt it produced. Sladmistrs from that era may not have subjected the final product to the technical analytics Mareš is now compelled to use. Brewers are interested in things like moisture content, extract, color, and friability. Mareš prepares a document with precise measurements of these characteristics, and he showed me several recent examples. I wondered if he felt this reduced his handiwork to something less than its true value. Nothing on the sheet mentioned flavor or character, whichcan’t be measured. I picked up a few grains from a lot cooling nearby and put them into my mouth. They were sweet and grainy and smelled like a loaf of bread fresh from the oven.

Our tour then went to an old brewery characteristic of the Czech Republic (more steampunk--with much actual steam). Finally, our tour concluded with a visit to the office. I assumed there would be an exchange of contact information, but instead, Mareš led us to a pitcher of foaming, fresh beer straight from the tanks. He poured out coruscating glasses of golden liquid and they built tall heads as dense as new snow. It was ten o’clock in the morning, and we sat and drank with relish.