In 2022, the Craft Maltsters Guild hosted its Advanced Class in Craft Malt Production course at the Southern Illinois University (SIU) Fermentation Science Institute in Carbondale, where participants got hands-on experience with SIU’s pilot malting system. 

This malting facility makes SIU’s fermentation science studies a one-of-a-kind pedagogy. As of this year, the program is undertaking small-scale commercial malting, making the program even more of a unique opportunity for the malt curious. 

Like all malting endeavors, the SIU team started by examining local agriculture. Matt McCarroll, Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Fermentation Science Institute, says that most farmers in Illinois haven’t thought much about barley for the last 40+ years because of the shift to corn and soybeans for animal feed and biofuels. During the process of putting together a proposal for a USDA grant to fund a new malting facility, though; he discovered that barley growing was prevalent in Illinois in the 1950s and 60s. “Illinois had more than 100,000 acres of barley,” he says. “If you look right now, Illinois-gown barley is basically not reported by USDA statistics because it’s such a small amount.” 

McCarroll and his colleagues are out to change that. “If you want to get malting going in a new area, you have to have farmers willing to grow it,” he says. These farmers have to have some guarantees that maltsters will purchase volume, he continues, and then you also have to find brewers willing to purchase volume from maltsters. “So you have to have all three parties working together to proceed. So a lot of what we did for this grant was to simply demonstrate that it is possible, and that it can be done in our area.” 

Flash forward to 2023. The SIU malting facility is up and running, and serving as a training facility for students before they enter the workforce. McCarroll and team are growing winter 2-row barley Calypso and Violetta test plots in collaboration with the university farm, on which they harvested about 4,000 pounds of barley in the last season. They’re also working with Riggs Beer Company in Champaign-Urbana, who brew with locally malted barley grown on their family farm.

Through the strengthening of local connections and trust-building along the supply chain, McCarroll and his team are commercially malting small batches of malt for the brewing industry. One such batch just came to fruition in a batch of Hi Wire Brewing beer crafted in collaboration with Peter Batinski, who majored in Agriculture Systems at SIU before there was a fermentation science program. “We had been talking about doing a collaboration for years and using the malt I produced as a demonstration during the Guild’s advanced malt class seemed like an opportunity,” says McCarroll.

Batinkski succeeded, and over the holidays McCarroll drove close to 500 pounds of Pale Ale malt to Asheville, where it went into the Saluki Pale Ale, named after SIU’s mascot, at the company’s South Slope location. According to Hi Wire, this classic American Pale is bursting with big citrus, orange blossom, and orange creamsicle flavors and aroma. “We wanted to really showcase the malt, so we did a simple recipe with our malt as 100 percent of the grain bill and some late edition Triumph hops for aroma,” says McCarroll. “It was a great collaboration and it was really nice to see our malt on tap across the Southeast.” 

In addition to this Pale Ale malt that went into the Saluki Pale, McCarroll’s team has also produced Pilsner malt and hopes to explore kilning regimens to make Vienna and Munich styles soon. They’ll be able to analyze these malts in the formal sensory laboratory currently in development that will have ten cubicles for sensory studies. “The sensory laboratory is a component of a major expansion of facilities as part of the Illinois Food, Entrepreneurship, Research, and Manufacturing (iFERM) Hub.” “We also have pending grants and a spot reserved for an MRI instrument so we can look at functional brain imaging to see the different parts of the brain that light up in response to flavor and aroma.” 

Also on the horizon for SIU’s Fermentation Science program is a partnership with Chicago’s Ravinia Brewing to build a full production facility on campus. In addition, Ravinia is helping to establish a 4 BBL student-run brewery that will put products to market and bring back revenue to students and the program. These vertically integrated pilot facilities aim to “eliminate the mystery” of producing beer, McCarroll explains, so they can understand the nuances involved in growing and manipulating crops into ingredients, managing yeast, and ultimately— brewing the best beer possible. 

It’s worth noting that SIU’s fermentation science program expands beyond brewing to distilling, winemaking, food manufacturing, biomanufacturing, and biotechnology– to name a few. This broad coverage of fermentation coupled with the university’s specific emphasis on hands-on malting with extension all the way to end products, i.e. beer and spirits, in the marketplace is exciting for students seeking a well-rounded education with opportunities to specialize, too. 

“We go not only field to bench, but also field to consumer. Students are not only just reading about or hearing about this great industry; they’re able to actually experience it– and within a four-year period, gain more knowledge  than what I’ve been able to learn in more than a decade.”