Caleb Michalke is the owner and Maltster of Sugar Creek Malt Co. in Lebanon Indiana. A small hand-crafted malting operation providing high quality local and highly specialized malts to beer brewers and distillers in the Midwest. I first met Caleb while working on an “American Potcheen” project at Spirits of French Lick where I needed a good quality peat smoked pale ale malt to add some smoke and biscuit notes to the project. Caleb stepped up the plate and delivered a high quality aromatic malt smoked with peat sourced from northern Indiana that fit the bill perfectly. Caleb is definitely passionate about what he does and is up to some big things even beyond malt. I can’t suggest his products enough or imply enough how high quality his malts really are so we decided to bring him over to the Alchemist Cabinet for an interview.
Caleb, tell us a little about your background, I presume you may have been a beer brewer and that is what brought you into the world of malting?
I grew up on a grain and hog farm. I didn’t want to come back and raise hogs, but knew i wanted to do something with agriculture so I went to Purdue and studied Agribusiness. After graduating I pursued developmental agriculture for a couple of years and worked in places like an alpaca ranch in Peru trying to help develop better breeding programs for the community. Before that I was in Austria for a half a year studying and developed a taste for German lagers. After not finding a paying job in the developmental agriculture world I realized I needed to do something different. I ended up teaching Agriculture at a high school for two years.During that time I got really into home brewing. I started to realize I did miss the lifestyle that came with living on a farm and wanted to get back to that. I started looking into brewing ingredients. And I guess the rest is history. We are now the only malthouse in Indiana!
When did you decide to go full steam ahead into the world of commercial malting? How did you learn and who did you learn from?
Unfortunately 4-5 years ago when I first started researching this there was not much information out there. There are a couple of textbooks you can buy that cover large scale malting and that is about it for literature. I ended up visiting a couple other craft malthouses that had already been in operation for a couple of years out on the east coast. I think there were less than 15 in North America at the time. Now there are over 100. I also took a short 1 week course at NDSU on how to grow barley. Nobody in Indiana really knew anymore. I then took a 2 week course on malting in Winnipeg. One of 2 courses available in the world on malting. The other was in Germany. So needless to say there was very little out there. So honestly most of what I know now was trial and error with a lot of error in the beginning.
I imagine malting to require some pretty specialized equipment, did you adapt existing equipment or design and purchase new equipment.
At that time there wasn’t really anyone making equipment for craft maltsters. There were some in Europe, but they were way to expensive to get here. So most of our equipment is from other industries and redesigned to work for us or completely new design and build buy us. I would say we are where craft brewing was in the early 90’s using dairy equipment. The industry now has a handful of equipment manufacturers, but when we started it was design and build it yourself or don’t do it at all.
Tell us a little about the process of malting and where you source barley from if you would. How important is the relationship with the farmers and the subsequent quality?
I try and source my barley within a 200 mile radius of our malthouse. So that includes Indiana, and parts of Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan. We spread our farms out, because the midwest is not a great or better yet consistent climate to raise malting barley. In order to cope with that we spread our growers out as much as possible. Even with that there are years we reject most of our local barley. I have made a commitment to my customers to give them the highest quality malt I can and some years that means not using IN barley. I have to use the best barley I can. We always grow enough barley to malt year round (1,000,000 lbs of malt), but if the barley has molds or bad germination I have to reject it otherwise the malt will not be to brewers satisfaction. Luckily 2016 crop was a great crop and we malted almost 100% local grains. 2017 we had a wet harvest and most of the local barley molded.
Quality is my number 1 priority with locality being #2. Just because it is locally grown doesn’t always mean it is better quality. In fact some years it is the opposite,but we will always try and produce malt as locally as we can.
I know you do a lot of specialized malting including some really cool smoked malts using some unconventional sources like lavender and other floral elements or wood smoke, you also did some corn malt as well I believe, tell us a bit more about how those came about and some of the interesting ones you have done.
Basically those projects are me getting bored. I have to keep my mind going all the time so when I get bores I start something new. We started a smoke house a couple of years ago and we now have the largest list of smoked malts in the world. We smoke everything from woods, to herbs, to spices, to barrel staves. We will try anything. It is really amazing how different the smoke smells between the different things.
As far as the corn goes. That was the first of many unique grains we are going to malt. I will touch base on that later. I had a request for it and I thought why not? So I got some corn that we raised on our family farm, did a little research and malted a 3000 lb batch first go around. We had to shut down all of our barley production to do that one batch of corn (corn germinates much hotter than barley and all of our germination floors are currently in one room). So it really didn’t make sense to do it, but it turned out great and have had many people ask for more. So that is coming back! We had some really cool beer made out of that. I am looking forward to playing around with that more!
How many employees do you guys generally have at the facility?
3 full time employees including myself and 4 part-time employees.
What’s new on the horizon in terms of malt varieties or interesting projects with others?
We have a few new fun things on the horizon. We are soon going to be roasting malts. We have a couple of pilot roasters that are very close to completion so roasted and crystal malts are soon on the way!!! We also just bought a reefer truck and are building a germination floor in the truck. This is going to be used 2 ways. 1. To malt rare grains like corn, rice, buckwheat, ect. We are also planning on taking this truck to festivals around the midwest and letting consumers see what malting is! let them see, touch, and smell grain as it germinates. We also plan on taking one of our roasters to festivals with us too. So people can see grain growing and see it roasting too. We have found that beer and whiskey consumers know a lot about the beer’s and whiskey’s they love, but really don’t know what all goes in to the ingredients that make those drinks. So we are really trying hard to educate the end consumer about all of the labor, love, science, and art we put in to making malt for our local breweries and distilleries. So look forward to that coming out this summer!