Smoked Beer and Whiskey Are Now Brewing in Texas – Texas Monthly
JB Flowers climbs a ladder to look for smoke, then looks over the edge of a shiny smoker behind TexMalt in Fort Worth. The smoker’s reinforced aluminum walls reach a height of seven feet on a foundation of freshly laid concrete blocks. A car’s length away is a small steel fire box connected to the smoker by circular pipes. The jar is big enough to cook a whole ox, but it’s full of grain. Flowers, the main distiller for Acre Distilling, just across Interstate 30 in downtown Fort Worth, is here to monitor the progress of the smoked malt he plans to use in another batch of his buttery Parker County Smoked Single Malt Whiskey.
“We have been 100% TexMalt for all of our whiskey products since the beginning of their business,” says Flowers as we watch TexMalt co-founders Austin Schumacher and Chase Leftwich put the lid on their newly built smoker. A mixture of pecan and peachwood smoke rises through the exhaust pipe and is emitted into the clear blue sky. Five hours later the batch would be ready. This wasn’t Flowers’ first visit to TexMalt, but it was the maiden voyage of this particular smoker, a far cry from the metal trash can Schumacher and Leftwich upgraded for their first batch of smoked malt years ago. TexMalt is one of only three major malt processors in the state – Blacklands Malt in Leander and Maverick Malt House west of Amarillo – and the only one with a smoking offering. TexMalt has both created and cornered the market for Texas Smoked Malt.
Malt is an integral part of whiskey and beer. It starts as a grain: raw barley, wheat, rye, triticale, oats, or corn. As Schumacher explains, “a malt house is a place where grain is converted into sugar.” The house picks up raw grains, soaks them in water to hydrate them and initiate germination in each of the kernels, and then places them in a damp germinating tank, which makes the kernels believe they are in the ground and would Plants become. This part of the process “provides all the starches and enzymes” and is ready to feed the yeast during brewing, Leftwich says. The germinated grains are then dried in an oven and the finished malt is packaged and shipped to distilleries and breweries for making alcoholic beverages. The whole process takes about a week. When the customer wants a smoked version of a grain, TexMalt starts the smoker with the customer’s choice of hardwoods and puts the processed grain in the smoker to soak up some of the flavor. Any of the malts can be smoked, but Leftwich says the smoke seems to saturate the barley and wheat most efficiently.
Schumacher is from Houston and Leftwich is from Lubbock. Both attended Texas Tech University, but the two never met in college. Her wives brought her together after graduation and their mutual appreciation for beer became a business partnership. They opened TexMalt in 2015 with the aim of malting malt grains grown exclusively in Texas. Six years later, they have stayed on track, mainly using grain grown in the panhandle. Schumacher and Leftwich forged relationships with local farmers and convinced them that their wheat fields could be barley fields instead. TexMalt signed sales contracts with the farmers who agreed to make the change and a supply chain was born.
If you’re familiar with German rauchbier (literally “smoked beer”) like Schlenkerla, you’ll recognize Schumacher and Leftwichs smoked malt. The difference is that the big German malting companies like the Weyermann Malting Company in Bamberg use smoky wood fires to dry the grains after germination instead of drying them in the oven first. Austin’s Live Oak Brewing serves smoked beers, including the spectacular Black Smoke imported from Weyermann’s smoked malts. The beer has an aroma that is reminiscent of sausage (I find that pleasant). In order to win over the local distilleries, TexMalt brews its own beer in-house and serves it in a bar that is only available by invitation. I have to try Left Handed Wheat Beer, a smoked German wheat beer. The smoke was evident in the nose, but when I took a sip it was offset by the breadiness of the beer. To keep the smoke taste from becoming overwhelming, this recipe uses four parts of regular malt to be smoked into one part.
Photo by Daniel Vaughn
Aside from Acre Distilling, TexMalt sells smoked malt to Garrison Brothers Distillery in Hye, Funky Picnic Brewery in Fort Worth, Freetail Brewing in San Antonio, and Vector Brewing in Dallas. To get a feel for how smoke can complement, rather than overwhelm, the taste of a beer, I highly recommend a pint of Moonsmoke at Vector Brewing. It’s Lichtenhainer-style, a sour beer that uses smoked malt in brewing. Sour and smoky might not sound like a great combination, but the two flavors soften each other and it’s a favorite among the Vector staff. It’s also a Texas brewed beer made with malt that was also grown, processed, and smoked in Texas.
Schumacher and Leftwich hope to make their smoked malts more popular with brewers, but business is doing well in Fort Worth right now. The first batch of malt in the new smoker was bittersweet because they want to tear off before the end of the year. They signed a lease for a new location on the south side of Fort Worth that will allow them to triple capacity. They’ll be building another smoker in the new location, and we hope the firebox trains more as brewers and distilleries discover the unique taste of Texas smoked malts.