The Companion is a wheat wine, a high-alcohol wheat beer analogous to a barley wine. It’s got an aroma of fresh-baked bread, a cream-sodalike smoothness and a mouthwatering candy-apple sweetness in the finish that invites one to take another sip. The use of 55 percent malted wheat keeps the beer unusually light on the palate for a product that measures 10 percent alcohol by volume, although you can detect a definite warming sensation as it slides down your throat.
What’s unique about The Companion, however, is that it utilizes a special variety of floor-malted wheat from Weyermann Specialty Malts in Bamberg, Germany, which “hasn’t been available here for over a century,” according to Brooklyn brewmaster Garrett Oliver.
What’s so special about floor-malted wheat?
The term “malting” refers to a process that begins with steeping the grain in water to induce germination. This step is necessary to produce enzymes that will break down the complex starches and proteins in the kernel into simpler sugars and amino acids that the yeast will be able to digest later on in the brewing process. After the grains have developed a rudimentary root system (and a slightly “hairy” appearance), they’re kiln-dried to prevent any further growth. Otherwise, the embryonic plant would use up the stores of nutrients that the brewers need to make beer.
Most malt today is manufactured in large, fully automated, pneumatic plants where immense fans are employed to aerate the beds of grain and keep the kernels from clumping together. However, some maltsters and brewers use an older technique, called floor malting, which involves spreading the moistened grain on a hard surface to a depth of about half a foot, then raking it by hand to keep the particles loose.
Floor malting produces malt that’s said to be undermodified: It has less enzyme content (what brewers call “diastatic power”) to convert starches into simple sugars. As a result, more carbohydrates remain in the beer, making it a little richer and fuller-bodied. (The term “juicy” is often used in connection with beers that have been brewed from floor-malted grains.)
One of the world’s largest floor maltings is at Augustiner Brau in Munich, the only one of that city’s Big Six breweries to remain independently owned. The brewery incorporates floor-malted pale barley malt into its Edelstoff, a slightly stronger take on a Bavarian golden lager. Edelstoff is imported into the United States by Global Village Imports of King of Prussia, Pa., although it pops up on shelves much less frequently than its competitors, Paulaner and Spaten.
Rogue Ales in Oregon also has set up its own floor-malting operation. The brewery grows barley (both a spring and a winter variety) on 200 acres of land for use in its GYO (“grow your own”) line of beers. Floor malting is a labor-intensive process, notes brewery president Brett Joyce.
“You need to rake the malt every two-and-a-half to three hours or it sticks together like a brick.” But, Joyce adds, “it produces a beautiful malted barley. It’s got a richness we haven’t gotten from any other pilsner malt. There’s an unexplainable magic when you do it yourself.”
You can taste the results in Rogue’s latest GYO beer, Good Chit Pilsner. (It’s named after the “chit,” the rootlet that sprouts from the barley kernel after it’s steeped in water.). The 22-ounce bottles should be on the market now.
Getting back to The Companion: The name is appropriate for a wheat wine, inasmuch as “companion” means someone that you eat bread with.
But the name has another significance. The Companion was co-brewed by Oliver, author Horst Dornbusch (“Prost! The Story of German Beer,” Brewers Publications, 1998) and Thomas Kraus-Weyermann of Weyermann Specialty Malts. The three also helped write “The Oxford Companion to Beer,” a 920-page compendium on all aspects of beer and brewing that Oxford University Press released about the same time that the wheat wine went on tap. Oliver was editor-in-chief, Dornbusch was associate editor and Kraus-Weyermann a major contributor.
More about that magnum opus next week.