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Dark Cloud Malthouse Connects Farmers With Local Breweries

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Maryland’s rapidly expanding craft brewing industry is one of the most visible markets helping to advance the local food movement.
There’s an obvious demand for locally-produced beer, and it’s a matter of pride for brewers, in turn, to be able to source their ingredients as locally as possible. One constant complaint registered by local brewers, however, has been the need to look out of state in order to find barley malt, the primary ingredient in the products; but much of it comes from as far away as the Midwest and Canada, and sometimes Europe.

That’s about to change, thanks to a western Howard County venture launched in October 2016 by Jesse Kaiss and his business partner, Danny Buswell.

Dark Cloud Malthouse, located on Kaiss’s farm in Cooksville, began operations last fall with a modest goal — prove that grain could be grown locally, malted and, more importantly, sold to brewers who are willing to use it
“We grow almost all of what we malt at the moment,” Kaiss said. “As we grow, the plan is to source from other local farmers because we’ll need help with acreage. But what we’re learning here now will really pay off.”

Aside from barley, Kaiss and Buswell will also be working with rye, wheat, oats and spelt, producing specialty products that are hard for small brewers to source.

Custom Design

Kaiss and Buswell, both engineers by trade, designed and built their own custom malting system using a second-hand stainless steel Saladin Box, an all-in-one vessel in which the steeping, germination and kilning of grains takes place.

“There’s a lack of small scale malting equipment, so I thought it would be really neat to design something internally and have your arms around the whole process,” Buswell said.

Their pneumatic system can handle up to three quarters of a ton of grain per batch and uses fans and electronic controls to regulate the temperature, humidity and moisture of the grain during germination.

The seven-day malting cycle runs through a 48-hour steeping process, followed by a three-to-four-day germination period, during which the grain is turned by hand twice a day, and ends with kilning, which lasts 24 hours.

So far, the darkest malt Dark Cloud has produced is a Vienna style, typically found in lighter colored brews. The next batch will be a Munich style more that’s commonly associated with Oktoberfest beers.

“We can probably get to a dark Munich or Biscuit style, but we’ll need a roasting drum to do anything darker,” Buswell said. “In the future, we really want to get into smoked malts and specialty malts, the unique, custom products that warrant a little extra money, but also are more difficult to find.”

Supply Side Strategy

The new maltsters haven’t had to look hard to find brewers willing to take a chance on their products. So far, Dark Cloud has supplied the likes of Mount Airy’s Milkhouse Brewery, Diamondback Brewing and The Brewer’s Art, both of Baltimore, and the Brookville Beer Farm, in Montgomery County, to name just a few of its customers.
Its product is also available to home brewers at Maryland Homebrew, in Columbia, which stocks bulk 50 pound bags of Dark Cloud malt and repackages smaller amounts for customer orders.
The decision to make malt wasn’t exactly deliberate. Kaiss and his wife bought the farm at auction without knowing exactly what they would do with it. But after helping build a food processing facility on his brother-in-law’s Tennessee farm, Kaiss thought he could do something similar.

“I worked for Jailbreak Brewing Co. [in Laurel], so naturally the goal was to do something beer-related,” he said.

“There are so many breweries out there now, we thought one of the things they might need is a local malt supplier,” Buswell said. “If we could prove we can make it work, we thought maybe we could get active on the supply side.”

The pair kept setup costs for the self-funded operation low by doing the design and assembly work themselves, and spent a lot of brainpower mentally preparing themselves. “It was a lot of visiting, reading a lot of books, and taking a two-week malting class at the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre, in Winnipeg [Manitoba],” Kaiss said.

Expansion Plans

Dark Cloud produces a half ton to three quarters of a ton of malt per week. “At our current capacity, most of the guys with a five- to 10-barrel brewhouse can make one brew with one batch of our malt,” Buswell said.

That amount is good for a one-off novelty brew made with all-Maryland products, but nowhere near the level of product needed to sustain a flagship brew that’s available year-round.

Now that operations are steady, Kaiss and Buswell are preparing to expand, which could entail pouring a concrete floor in one of the larger buildings on-site or moving into an industrial setting.

“We’re working on loans and equipment lists right now,” Kaiss said. “We’ll bring an engineer on board to help us, but we’ll try to design as much of the next system as we can, too.”

Dark Cloud is targeting a capacity of five to 10 tons per week after expansion, which could make a major difference for local brewers looking to source malt locally.

“By the end of 2018, the goal is to be at a sustainable capacity, where at least one of us could focus on it full-time and begin to hire on additional help,” Buswell said. “We’ve been working with the Howard County Economic Development Authority since we started. They’ve been very helpful, and we know they’ll continue to be helpful once we make our decision.”

More Options

From a supply-side perspective, the local market for malt is vast. According to Jailbreak Co-Founder Kasey Turner, his brewery used 252,000 pounds of 2-row malt and 104,000 pounds of Pilsen malt during the past 12 months, not counting specialty malts used by the brewery.

“It would be great to have a reliable producer so close, so we can have a real two-way dialogue to design beers around the malts that are being produced,” Turner said. “This is something we certainly don’t have currently, being a really small, 7,200 barrel brewery. Beyond that, the practicality of saving money on shipping and the satisfaction of working with our neighbors also make it a great thing.”

For Kaiss and Buswell, the primary variable to their success will be the weather.

“There’s a lot of disease pressure in Maryland, a lot of humidity and moisture,” Kaiss said. “If you’re not on the ball, you might lose a crop.”

The goal, he said, is to produce as many different types of malts as demand allows, paying particular attention to specialty products that are hard for small brewers to acquire.

“We’re even planning to start experimenting with sorghum this fall, to get a gluten-free product available,” Buswell said. “We want to be another resource for farmers looking to get out of the standard corn and soybean rotation. This gives them more options.”