"Candy is Dandy but Liquor is Quicker"
On a whim and expecting no reply, I emailed the owner of Michael Weyermann Malting Company in Bamberg, curious if they’d show us around their malting facility. Swinging below .200 for email responses from German breweries, I tempered my expectations; however, I received an email confirming our appointment for a private tour and beer tasting with Weyermann’s international sales representative, Axel.
In the parking lot a century-old, red-bricked building wielding narrow smokestacks rose above a wall laced in ivy. We spotted what appeared to be a gift shop and knocked upon the large red door at the entrance. A tall, muscular man emerged from the crack in the swinging door: “You must be Sara and Sam. I’m Axel. Let’s get started!” he said, all in perfect English.
Axel deftly transitioned into characteristics of German beer and Weyermann malt, continuing for nearly three hours and pausing only for breath and the occasional question. Without looking he identified each anachronistic structure. “The main malting building here was built in 1904 nearly 25 years after H.B. Weyermann started malting grain in a tent. Doesn’t this make you think of Willy Wonka?” Axel continued. While not purple and green, the employees sported bright red and yellow uniforms. Narrow cobbled walkways weaving between the ivy-clad brick buildings harkened back to a golden age of industrialization. I could almost hear Gene Wilder humming melodies.
The Weyermann Family has lived in Bamberg since the 16th Century, transporting grain up the Main River and, beginning in 1879, malting that grain for beer. By 1908 they were sending malt throughout Europe and the United States. Passing through the lab and subsequent buildings dedicated to various stages of production, we experienced each step as the grain graduated from raw material to perfectly processed malt: inspection, cleaning, polishing, germinating, drying, kilning, and roasting. We walked past the kilning facility and smelled the chocolate, caramel, and coffee bean aromas emanating from the roaster. Employees monitored digital screens tracking the various physical and chemical properties of each batch. Occasionally they would step away from the screens to inhale deeply or visually inspect a sample or taste a kernal of malt. “All our grain is Franconian minus one Bohemian. We work with 500 different farmers throughout Germany,” Axel informed us as we walked into the bagging and distribution warehouse. “Every batch of malt is unique. And while the equipment is fully automated and modern, the maltsters’ hands-on analysis is crucial for detecting color, flavor, aroma, and textural qualities beyond the range of these machines. Malting is still very much an art.”
We finished the tour with our favorite component of the beer experience: beer drinking. Axel introduced a series of beers brewed on-site, each showcasing a particular malt quality. “Try this Rauchbier,” Axel suggested. A subtle smokiness crept through a restrained malt backbone, finishing crisp and refreshing. “With this smoke beer, the garage isn’t burning down,” Axel summarized wryly. Current craft beer trends in the United States treat malt as an outcast. Compared to the sexy hops and sophisticated yeast, malt is considered a universal commodity no more nuanced than water (which, like malt is much more nuanced than you may think). Yet, next to water, beer is more malt than anything else. Our last sample, a double bock, celebrated malt more than any other style. Rich caramel and dark chocolate played nicely in bittersweet balance. In both flavor and sustenance it could be considered a meal, but one that finishes with a fresh, sweet, and creamy dessert - creme brulee comes to mind. We sipped our meals to their frothy conclusion and returned to the present, outside the gates of Weyermann. Looking back at the towering brick buildings, a sense of fantasy and mystery cropped up in my imagination, and I felt the only thing missing was a golden ticket.