Knox Beer Snobs

A Visit to Riverbend Malt House

I had noticed the building a while back while traveling I-26 south in Asheville, NC. As we merged onto I-26 from I-40, if I looked quickly back to my right I could see the building with “Riverbend Malt House” written on the side. There’s no telling how many times I mentioned to my wife that one day I wanted to go visit.

If you’re wondering what malt is and why it is important to brewing, here’s a very brief explanation; malt is one of the four key ingredients in beer (malt, hops, water, yeast). Malt contains the sugars that yeast needs to consume in order to create alcohol (and CO2). The process of malting is, A) the first step of unlocking these sugars  – and  – B) kilning the malt which effects the taste, color and mouthfeel of our beer. A more detailed explanation can be found here at How To Brew.

Malting has always been an interesting process to me and I had studied it while working towards my level two Cicerone but beyond the books, I had no exposure to the process. Recently, I got a chance to visit Riverbend Malt House thanks to the Sierra Nevada Alpha Hop Society (which is an awesome program) and I thought I’d share a little bit about what I discovered.

First of all, Riverbend Malt House is no longer off of “Pond Road” as I had seen them off of I-26. Instead they are a little further south and east occupying 70,000 square feet of a former Gerber Baby Food facility. The building itself is formidable – poured concrete columns and walls. It reminded me of the scene from Batman with Christian Bale where he drove the Tumbler for the first time – that could have very well been this building. While we were there for an Alpha Hop event – and there was food and beer to sample, a table caught my eye as it displayed several malts and information on their flavors. It was at that point we got to meet one of Riverbend’s founders, Brent Manning, who explained their process/approach and began to pull out different malts for us to sample. I found Brent to not only be incredibly knowledgeable but an incredibly nice guy who is obviously very passionate about his craft.

Shortly thereafter, we got to explore the gargantuan facility on a tour. First things first, the grain that is malted here comes from local farmers and is distributed within a 500 mile radius of the malt house. As our guide explained, while this facility seems large, what is produced here within a year is the equivalent of what Sierra Nevada in Chico goes through in a few days – wow. That impressed upon us that what they are doing is still very artisanal and craft-like in it’s own right.

While not all of the malt is floor malted, this is still a practice employed at Riverbend. Our guide explained that sometimes this is done when they are working with a grain from a new farmer or for a small batch. Regardless, it is a neat process that requires diligence and timeliness. If I recall correctly, I think they said that someone has to turn it every 8 hours. There are larger – and more efficient ways – to malt onsite as well. However, floor malting is a traditional process that was great to see for the first time and to know that it is still practiced.

There aren’t many malt houses in the U.S. and it was neat to experience one so close to home. These guys are doing a great job of connecting local farmers to local craft brewers and ensuring that our local beer is made from local ingredients. If you ever get the opportunity to visit, I’d recommend it. Cheers!