Rabbit Hill Farms.
It just sounds bucolic. It sounds like a place where great things are born, and where great food comes from to fill your great belly.
All of that is true. And even better, it’s where great beer comes from.
(Well, technically, the great beer comes from us. But they help. A lot.)
We’ve told you about Rabbit Hill before — our guys went out there over the summer to check out their barley production, and, apparently they were impressed with what they saw. So much that they’ve decided to use their barley in Three Plows.
Hillary Barile is the fifth generation to be working on Rabbit Hill, and she’s thrilled that we’re using her grain in our all-New Jersey beer. “It’s a great way to explore some of the different flavors of New Jersey products,” she says.
Her barley is a little different from what we might get from some of the larger companies, because the varieties of barley that are grown successfully in New Jersey are a little different from the ones they grow.
“The taste is going to be different, because my process is different.”
And that’s quite the understatement. Most commonly-available malt is pneumatic malted. This means that it’s put into a vessel, and it’s steeped, germinated, and kilned all in the same vessel.
“We take the grain and steep it in one vessel and then when it reaches the proper moisture content, we put it out on the concrete floor for four days,” she tells us. “Every 8 hours we turn it with a specially made malt rake that my brother built, or shovels, depending on how much the grain has sprouted and grown.”
As you might imagine, floor malting takes up quite a bit of room. Hillary and her family work in one-ton batches, and once it’s spread out all over a floor, it takes up about 250 square feet.
It’s a little bit old-fashioned and a little bit artisanal, but it imparts some beautifully distinct flavors over modern pneumatic malting. “It’s a biological process. The grain is experiencing something different in terms of temperature and humidity and CO2 buildup than it would be experiencing if it were in a pneumatic vessel.”
This uncommon process has been a bit of trial and error for Rabbit Hill — you can’t just go online and find directions on a process that pretty much died out a century ago. “Floor malting is really an experimental thing. I have books from 1908 that I’m reading about how they floor malt. I have grand plans to do a tour in the UK where there’s still some floor malting, and the tradition continues to be passed down.”
And that’s kinda what we do around here. A lot.
“It’s really fun to find that the brewers at Cape May were excited to do that,” she tells us, “even though you guys have moved up to be on this 30-barrel system and are one of the bigger ones in the state. To find that culture and excitement about experimenting and trying something new is really exciting for me.”
Her brother Blair, a homebrewer, has been the guinea pig from the beginning. “That was where the whole idea for an all-New Jersey beer came from. Once he’d been brewing for several years, he was looking to find different ingredients. So, we thought it would be fun to brew a beer with all ingredients that we grew on our own farm.” Blair wasn’t sure if they could make malt, but Hillary was undaunted.
“We figured it out.”
The first few batches were malted in a food dehydrator in Hillary’s kitchen. She wasn’t going to send that to a lab for analysis, so she told Blair to try brewing with it. “Because if it brews, then we did something right.”
And they did something right.
Blair’s got a few things on tap right now. “Now that there’s bags and bags of malt in the barn, the sky’s the limit. It’s more malt than he could ever brew. He’ll keep trialing everything we have and making sure we’re hitting the things we want to hit and it smells the way we want it to smell.”
Hillary loves the fact that we’re using her Pale Ale and Vienna malt in Three Plows. “I think having a nice light beer gives everybody an opportunity to taste the malt and the hops and not be overwhelmed by a roasted malt or really dark malt that would contribute a lot of malt flavor.”
Furthermore, it’s a validation of the idea they had those many years ago. “To see Cape May pick up that idea and run with it is really exciting. It validates everything we’ve been working toward for the last year and a half.
“To have you guys make this beer and have it be available on a wide range, to walk into a bar not far from me and say, ‘Hey, we had a part in that’: that’s a little bit of me, a little bit of my brother, a little bit of our land is in that beer. It’s really great. That’s why we started doing this.”
So, how did Hillary and Co. do? You’ll just have to wait until November 10th to find out.