One of the great things about writing this blog is that I get to talk to people from around the world about malting and brewing beer. Recently I’ve been exchanging ideas about malt kiln designs with Curtis Hoffman, owner of Sol Del Venado, a nano-brewery/BBQ in Ecuador. Check out their facebook page https://www.facebook.com/SolDeVenado. We’ve been talking about kilns because he’s planning on building a traditional direct heat malt kiln. How awesome is that! So I had to ask how he got started and it’s quite a story:
In 1974, my girlfriend graduated from high school and decided to visit her mother in Ecuador for the summer. Well, she liked it, and stayed more than just that summer, she stayed for 5 years. She got a job teaching English at a local university, and started up her own exotic fruit seed export business. In ’76, we purchased a large piece of land in the mountains near Vilcabamba (go to Facebook, search “Bosque Protector El Bosque“) When she finally made it back to San Diego, we decided to get married and move to Ecuador, which we did, actually drove down, with a big pickup and a utility trailer, in 1980…an adventure in itself worthy of a book.
We lived at El Bosque the first few years, (growing barley, garlic, peas, and gardens) but quickly realized that we needed to be in town to be a sustainable family unit, so we bought a place in the nearest village, San Pedro de Vilcabamba.
Back then, it was really remote…there were no phones, no paved roads, and few vehicles. The only beer available was quite bland, so I decided I could make my own, as I had seen others doing when I was younger. So I got my brother in law to bring down some hops and yeast and a couple of copies of Zymurgy magazine. I bought barley in the city, and malted it a few pounds at a time, and taught myself how to make beer. Later I was able to get some 15 gallon carboys and two 25 gallon kettles. I made a large brick oven for drying and roasting malt, and the beer scene improved…I had enough for myself, my friends, and for throwing a party or two each year. Everyone said I should make enough to sell, but the investment required for the equipment just seemed impossible.
In year 2000, I moved back to San Diego to put my oldest 3 kids in High School as juniors, and give them the opportunity to go to college in the US. Luckily, I got a great job and contributed to a 401k retirement plan for 10 years. After the kids were done with college, it was time to move back to Ecuador, and I just happened to be old enough to cash in the retirement fund, which I used to purchase all the equipment I would need for the brewery, plus a full sized shipping container…packed up everything and in October ’12, arrived back in Ecuador ready to set up shop with the help of Joy and my oldest son, Ivan. We brewed our first 3 Bbl batch in June 2013.
We purchase select barley grown in the Northern high plains of Ecuador, malt it ourselves, and only package in Cornelius kegs…(why we don’t have bottles is another long story I will save for later). We sell kegs to several local restaurants and bars, and Ivan has started a roadside BBQ where we sell beer in glasses. Most of our kegerators have only 3 taps, so we have decided to limit ourselves for the time being to 3 styles of beer…blond, red and dark. They’re actually all three quite similar to each other, as they have the same hops, just differentiated by the malts used. We want to start out with beers which appeal to the local taste…no IPAs, nothing too bitter or strong…pleasant session beers. We figure we will be able to make the fun stuff in a few years when we are more financially “positioned”.
We have to import both hops and yeast…we don’t have the equipment to culture yeast, and hops are a daylight sensitive crop needing long summer days to produce…here in Vilcabamba, one can grow most everything except such summer crops. Our barley quality is usually acceptable….we could purchase imported malts, but since I was used to malting, we decided to continue at the larger scale…less traveling, less paperwork, and better flavors. Our water is sourced from El Bosque, possibly some of the best quality water on the planet.
So, by now we have made over 30 batches, and can securely say our beer is good. Everyone (well 99%) likes it. The brewery is actually sustainable, and we are looking at different means of allowing it to grow in a manageable fashion. We have several alternatives: 1. Make more kegerators and expand the draft beer sales. (costs about $1500 per kegerator). 2. Expand the restaurant into a beer garden and sell more beer in glasses. 3. Start producing in bottles. This alternative is complicated, but is probably the one to follow.
Any growth will also require growth of the malting operation. We can now easily produce 200 lbs. per week, and if we hammer out the schedules, can double that. If we start bottling, the need will be for 1000 lbs per week or more, requiring new equipment. We could choose to throw money at the problem, and make a large rotary propane/electric dryer/kiln, but are looking at all the possibilities, including the old English way of a direct fired kiln. Thus, the design you have for a small “pilot” kiln. If we like the results, we would then design and make the larger model capable of processing 1000 lbs per batch. Of course, we would also have to have a suitable floor and steep tanks. In the event of spectacular growth of the brewery, we have considered the option of only producing specialty roasted malts, and using imported base malt for the bulk of brewing needs.
Now that’s brewing beer the hard way! Here are Curtis’ plans for a prototype malt kiln capable of holding 50kg of malt. Malt Kiln Plans (1)
If you know of any breweries that malt their own barley or even just roast their own malts please let me know and I’ll include them in the “Malt house breweries” section of this blog. Cheers and happy malting!