The barley that becomes whiskey begins as a braid of seeds in a green stalk swaying in a furrowed field on a farm on the southwest edge of Marana. There are hundreds of varieties of barley, but this one is called Conlon, a two-row malting variety, selected because it heads early, tolerates heat, and has plenty of starch. Eventually, after the harvest in June, these kernels will be steeped in water, and that starch will become sugar and then the sugar will become alcohol and the alcohol will become whiskey.
But for now, on a cool morning in early March, the whiskey remains as rows of short grass, dozens of months away from spilling into someone’s glass.
Founded in 1965, BKW Farms is a 5,000-acre family farm irrigated from the Central Arizona Project canal, which bisects the property in a shimmering turquoise line. This is the second season Conlon barley has sprouted at BKW Farms, which otherwise grows mainly cotton and red durum wheat. In 2013, recognizing the demand for local grains, Ron Wong and his son, Brian, decided to expand their production to include certified organic grains, starting with White Sonora wheat. Local breweries in Tucson had expressed interest in local grains, says Karen Dotson, BKW’s organic farming program manager. So had a furniture maker named Stephen Paul—Paul had recently purchased a 40-gallon copper still and started distilling mesquite-smoked whiskey, calling it Whiskey del Bac.
“But they said, gee, barley is the main ingredient in all our brewing, in whiskey,” says Dotson. “Can you grow barley?”
After researching what varieties would grow well on their property—most malting barley grows at high elevation—in December of 2014, the Wongs planted 40 acres of Conlon barley. It grew well. “Quite a few farmers came by to take a look at it,” says Ron Wong. “Barley is usually a short plant, but this grew so well and the seed heads were so big that it actually fell over.” In June of 2015, they harvested 175,000 pounds of barley. They cleaned the grain and stored it in dozens of 2,000-pound totes, stacked in a climate-controlled building. “And then it sat there,” he says.
When Stephen Paul started Hamilton Distillers in 2011, he wanted to make mesquite-smoked whiskey—to distill liquor that tasted like the desert. But before he could smoke grain to turn into whiskey, he needed first to malt it—to activate the enzymes that would convert a seed’s starch reservoirs into sugar, sugar that would then feed yeast to produce alcohol. So Paul built a malting system from a few five-gallon plastic buckets and a floor in an empty storeroom of his custom furniture company, Arroyo Design.
Brewers and distillers don’t use unmalted grain because its sugars aren’t yet accessible to yeast—“it’s really not a huge source of fermentable extract,” says Eric Greene, the head brewer at Dragoon Brewing Company. Although Greene has used unmalted grain to provide “haze, body, and flavor”—their Ojo Blanco is 30 percent unmalted White Sonora wheat—“there’s only so much we can do with flaked wheat,” he says. “It’s just not appropriate for everything. Malted barley is the bread and butter for beer.” Malting is the reason that BKW barley sat in their storeroom for over a year—the reason locally grown grain isn’t yet widely used at local breweries.
In the early days of Hamilton Distillers, Paul and his head distiller, Nathan Thompson-Avelino, malted barley by submersing it in water two or three times over the same number of days. They’d drain, dry, and clean the grain before spreading it across a cool, clean floor to let it germinate. After watching the grain for four or five days—watching for when the seeds would sprout a thin, green tendril three-quarters the length of the seed—they would stop the process by smoking the barley, inserting trays of grain into a meat smoker powered by smoldering mesquite.
But as demand for Whiskey del Bac grew, Paul decided to scale up—and realized that he’d have to get serious about malting. In late 2014, he moved their production into an 8,000-square foot warehouse space near Grant and I-10, installed a grain silo capable of holding 60,000 pounds of seed barley, and purchased a 500-gallon still. And he started to look beyond the buckets.
“I saw a tank-based malting system built in Germany that looked appealing but it was small,” says Paul. “So I was looking for fabricators, I was on the trail of augers, and it was totally all over my head.”
He’d already been working with Guinevere de Amblia, the president of Portland’s Global Stainless Systems, to install the bigger still and fermentation tanks. When Paul mentioned malting, de Amblia told him she was working with another small-scale maltster on a horizontal tank-based malting system, one that turned on rollers to aerate and move the grain. “So we got serious,” says Paul.
Paul decided he wanted a vertical tank-based system for “efficiency, space, and control,” he says. “I wanted something you could look into. We still have to feel the grain, look at it, take apart the grain, look at the acrospire. I wanted easy access.”
Basically, what they needed was a way to soak the grain and move it around while it was soaking; a way to drain, dry, and clean the grain; and a space for it to germinate, aerate, and finally smoke. Easy enough.
“We ran into a lot of issues with manufacturing and installation,” says de Amblia. The augers—four vertical screw conveyors—weren’t strong enough to mix the grain. “We’re on the phone saying, ‘We’ve got metal bending over here,’” says Thompson-Avelino.
What made the build-out so tricky was that they were basically making it up as they went along—there are, as far as de Amblia knows, no other tank-based malting systems of a similar scale in the United States. “There was no one to copy,” she says. “We were working with lots of new equipment and lots of unknowns.”
“With our old setup, when we were malting 20 pounds of grain, you stir it with your hand,” says Thompson-Avelino. “How do you stir two and a half tons of grain? How much drag does a four-foot auger have? A lot of the process of scaling up has been learning how the machinery reacts and responds under the pressure of so much wet grain.”
As they scaled up, both Paul and Thompson-Avelino worried that they’d sacrifice the quality they’d worked so hard to hone with their small batch process. “Think of it like soup,” says Thompson-Avelino. “If you find out how to make an awesome soup in a five-gallon pot and then do simple multiplication to make it for 100 people, it’s not going to taste the same. I did as many calculations as I could. And I was like, I got this. The first day, it’s like—no you don’t.” But he tried and tweaked, tasted and tuned.
And in November of 2015, Paul and Thompson-Avelino picked up their first 5,000-pound load of grain from BKW Farms.
Ron Wong wasn’t stressed about the delay. Properly stored, grain stays good for decades. “I hate to say it, but it’s not a contributor to our bottom line,” he says. “Between the organic grain and the barley, we grew probably 200,000 pounds in 2015. While that sounds like a lot of grain, our normal commercial grain production on the farm is about six to seven million pounds a year. I guess the term ‘drop in the bucket’ applies here.”
So far, Paul and Thompson-Avelino have found that the locally grown Conlon grain doesn’t malt quite as well as the Scarlett barley they’d been sourcing from a grower in Alamosa, Colorado. “We don’t really know why,” says Thompson-Avelino. “It’s just not giving us as much sugar.” And at the end of the pipeline, more sugar means more alcohol. So they’ll keep experimenting—Paul is working with the Conlon barley in smaller batches, and will meet with Wong to talk about other varieties they might grow. At Paul’s request, Wong has already planted seven acres of Scarlett barley, although by early April, it had only just started to form seed heads—too late for a good harvest.
“Why would a person want to be malting their own grain?” asks de Amblia. “I don’t know how many huge malting companies there are in the United States, but there aren’t very many of them. You don’t know where your grain is coming from. You don’t have a lot of control over it and it’s certainly not local. [By malting] all of a sudden you have control in an area where you don’t really have any right now.”
More importantly, malting is a link. Malting links growers with makers and makers with drinkers. Malting is the process of converting crops to consumables.
Paul started malting barley because he had to malt barley in order to smoke it to make mesquite-smoked whiskey. But then it became something bigger. “Selling malt wasn’t part of the original business plan, but I think it’s going to become a part of the business plan,” he says. As Paul figures out how to malt efficiently with the Conlon barley, suddenly, making beer with local grains becomes a viable option for many of Tucson’s brewers.
“When we started subbing White Sonora wheat into a few beers, it really improved the quality of those beers,” says Dragoon’s Greene. “We’re excited to have a local ingredient we can use in a lot of different ways. We want to use more ingredients that come from our community, and that also give us a really high quality final product.” Ten Fifty-Five Brewing and Pueblo Vida Brewing Company have also expressed interest in buying Hamilton Distiller’s malt.
“The community aspect of this has been really rewarding—everyone wants to help. It’s been broadening,” Paul says. Whiskey del Bac is aged in white oak barrels; after one or two fills, Paul sells the barrels to brewers, chocolatiers, or barbeque sauce makers—anyone who wants a whiff of whiskey in their aged product. Spent grain goes to Rod Miller at Tucson’s E&R Pork—and Miller, in turn, gifts half-hogs back to the team at Hamilton Distillers, which includes Paul’s daughter, Amanda Paul, who manages marketing, assistant distiller Ramon Olivas, and administrative assistant Ellery Thomas.
“We love our relationships,” says Paul. And people love their whiskey. In March, at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Whiskey del Bac’s Dorado Single Malt took home a double gold medal. Their classic and clear single malt took home silver and bronze medals, respectively. “This is partly due to making great malt,” says Paul.
“There’s that mystique of the mesquite,” he says. “People are drawn to it. As far as the furniture goes, it was this wildness. It’s almost untamable. I don’t know if that translates to the whiskey—the cracks, the knots, the wormholes.”
But the flavor is more than the mesquite—more than the malt. “It’s an additive process,” says Thompson-Avelino. “What determines our flavor profile has to do with the type of grain we’re using, the quality of malt we’re making, the mash bill, the recipe, the fermentation temperatures, the cuts we make, when we make our cuts from heads to hearts and hearts to tails, the barrel program, the bottling.”
It’s all connected. And it all begins with a seed in the ground. ✜
Hamilton Distillers. HamiltonDistillers.com.
Megan Kimble is the editor of Edible Baja Arizona and the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food (William Morrow 2015).