An Education in Agronomy and Brewing

November 9, 2018

Natasha Peiskar knows a thing or two about malt. She’s head brewer at Last Best Brewing in Calgary and one of eight Canadians who have achieved ‘Advanced Cicerone’ status in a world-renowned certification program for beer professionals.

Peiskar is paired with Chris Spasoff, Technical Development Lead for malt barley at Syngenta, as part of the Advancing Ag Mentorship program, sponsored by Alberta Barley and Alberta Wheat, which focuses on developing future leaders in the crop sector.

Spasoff is teaching Peiskar barley agronomy, but the learning goes both ways. The two recently took a break from the field to sit down and talk malt. Today’s lesson is how malt is produced to give different flavours to different kinds of beers.

Listen to their entire conversation on this podcast, or keep reading.

Specialty malts

Ever wonder what happens to barley after it leaves the field and reaches the malthouse? Peiskar explains that germination is the first step. “We encourage the seed to grow and create an enzyme package that's useful for breaking down the starches into sugars that the yeast then uses to make beer,” she says.  

After germination, the barley moves into a process called kilning. “This essentially dries the malt to a particular moisture and makes it a usable product for us brewers,” says Peiskar. “Now, in kilning you can do a very light kiln, just enough to take that moisture out of that barley, which is now malt, or you can also do a high dry kilning or a steep or roast, which creates specialty malts.”

All of these kilning levels change the malt flavour. High dry kilning results in toasty, biscuity, and nutty flavours. Steeping brings caramel and toffee notes into that malt. And roasting develops dark chocolate, cocoa, coffee and espresso-type flavours.

“When we're choosing malt for a beer recipe, there's several different ways that we can evaluate it,” says Peiskar. One of her favourites methods is tasting it. “You can take a raw barley or a raw malt grain and put a few kernels in your mouth and chew. That gives you a pretty general idea of where you're headed with that particular malt,” she says.

Another method is called ‘the hot seat.’ “You take a portion of the malt that you'd like to work with, grind it up, combine it with warm water, strain off the malt, and you're left with a warm liquid sugar water, which is essentially a wort, which is what we work with in the brewhouse. You can then taste that, and it gives you a much more definitive picture of how that malt is going to act in your actual brewing process,” she says.

Cicerone training

Peiskar’s considerable malt and brewing knowledge can be credited to both hands-on and online learning. In addition to working at the brewery, her studies through the Cicerone Certification Program set her apart. Similar to a ‘sommelier’ in the wine world, a ‘cicerone’ is the beer industry standard for identifying those with significant knowledge and professional skills.

Peiskar is aiming to achieve ‘Master Cicerone,’ the highest level of certification – with fewer than 20 graduates worldwide. “I'm hoping to get there with a few more years of experience and studying under my belt. It's taken about three-and-a-half years to get to the Advanced Cicerone level and that includes working in the industry plus all the self-study and the programs that I've done through the Cicerone Program.”

For anyone interested in learning more about the Cicerone Certification Program, visit: cicerone.org.

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