Should sunflower seeds move from being a prominent fixture of bird feeders and ballplayers’ cheeks to being among more traditional brewing grains in the mash tun? The jury is still out, but sunflower seeds are among the gluten-free grains that a small malting company has been experimenting with and introducing to local breweries.
Colorado Malting Company is a based on a family farm in Alamosa, Colorado. According to the company’s president, Jason Cody, before founding the malting company, his family had grown two-row malting barley for Coors for almost half a century. In 2008, with the help of a couple of experts who worked at Coors, they decided to start malting and selling their own grain.
The Cody family converted an old dairy tank to malt 500 pounds of grain at a time. The tank had been unused since the family sold their dairy cattle in 1995. A false bottom and an aeration system were added.
The first batch of base malt went to the San Luis Valley Brewing Company in Alamosa. The malt performed well. Extract and flavor were good, and the brewery wanted more. Soon other nearby craft breweries wanted the local malt, too.
“We were running that little dairy tank 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Jason. The Cody family didn’t sign a contract to sell grain to Coors for 2009. They would need all their own grain for their own malt house.
The old dairy tank was replaced with a new system that Colorado Malting Company designed from scratch. Steeping, germinating, and kilning take place in the same tank. The capacity expanded to 4,500 pounds per batch. But the old tank would not go unused.
“Early on in our malting endeavors, we were contacted by New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins about doing test malts on gluten-free grains,” Jason says. “So, of course, getting a chance to work with New Belgium was a real feather in our cap.”
New Belgium asked Colorado Malting to test red proso millet, sorghum, teff, buckwheat, and coix seed from Malaysia. The coix seed was the only one that didn’t sprout. New Belgium took the grains and used them in their pilot plant for test batches of gluten-free beers.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture offered a grant to the malting company for a marketing test investigating new grains for the state’s growing craft beer industry. The old dairy tank was modified with a smaller screen on the bottom, and three different kinds of malted millet were distributed to Colorado craft brewers free of charge for use in experimental batches.
This brings us to sunflower seeds, which are also gluten-free. Jason says his company malted two types of sunflower seeds, and their value seems to be in promoting head retention in beers – especially gluten-free beers.
Colorado Homebrewer Acey Albert brewed a very hoppy “Locavore Pale Ale” using malted sunflower seeds:
10 lbs. Colorado Malting Company 2-row malt
1 lb. Colorado Malting Company sunflower malt
1 oz Centennial hops (11.0% AA) – 60 min
1 oz Colorado wild hops (wet hop) at turn-off
1 oz Colorado backyard hops (wet hop) at turn off
1 oz Centennial hops – dry hop
White Labs WLP090 San Diego Super Yeast
“In the end, I got much more gravity than I was anticipating from the Sunflower malt,” Acey says. “I put it into my brewing software along the same lines as malted rye or malted wheat. With that, I should have hit a pre-boil gravity of 1.044. In reality, I hit 1.050.” Acey suspects the increased efficiency may have been thanks to the husks of the sunflower seeds, which acted like rice hulls to improve the lautering and sparging in the mash tun.
“There is maybe a slight ‘wheatiness’ to the beer that shouldn’t come from the neutral two-row,” says Acey. Jason Cody describes the character that the sunflower seeds add to the beer as “earthy.” There is evidence of the sunflower seed’s impact floating on top of the beer – a big, white fluffy head that stays around for a good, long time.
In our tests, the sunflower seeds proved a bit difficult to mill. The husks tended to be slick, and the gap of the mill needed to be opened and closed almost constantly to ensure that the seeds were drawn in between the rollers and crushed adequately. In the mash tun, the seed husks seemed to float to the top immediately, so it wasn’t clear how much stayed below to help with the filtering of the mash.
One thing is clear: The experimental spirit of the craft beer movement has reached the level of the craft maltster. We can look forward to a more diverse selection of grains to play with in the homebrew store. Malted sunflower seeds? Why not?