Craig Weitzel: The Modern Maltster

Will Work For Beer by | Nov 2014 | Issue #94

Craig Weitzel rakes in Riverbend's old setup.

Occupation: Production Manager and Maltster
Company: Riverbend Malt House
Time in Position: Two Years
Previous Job: Accountant

By now it’s a familiar story: someone quits a high-paying, professional career in order to pursue a passion for brewing. When you talk to these second-career brewers, you often hear about their excitement to learn a craft, and to create something tangible that people can enjoy in the real world. After years at a desk, they’ve grown weary of interacting with a screen, and many of them even enjoy the manual labor.

Set foot inside Riverbend Malt House in Asheville, N.C., and it’s clear that the maltster has a similar role to the brewer’s—except the work takes place a bit earlier in the barley-to-beer conversion process. While employees who work at large malt houses may see grain move at the push of a button, at Riverbend much is still human-powered.

“Kiln loading is probably our most physically-intensive task,” says Craig Weitzel, production manager at Riverbend. “We have a conveyer belt that goes from the germination room into the kiln, but it still takes three or four of us. We’ll have a few guys in the germination room shoveling about 12,000 pounds of steeped grain onto the belt, then the fourth guy’s actually inside the kiln, catching the grain off the belt and distributing it evenly. And right now, as soon as we finish we move right on and load the steep tanks with a new batch of grain.”

In other words, both barley and people are constantly in motion. For Weitzel, that’s part of what he likes about the job. “It takes about a week from steep to packaging for us, so every day of the week is different. But you also get in a rhythm over the course of weeks and months … For example, today I knew I was going to come in and rake.”

Yes, rake. Large commercial operations use machines to evenly distribute grain and help it germinate uniformly, but at Riverbend the employees and owners spread the living barley on the floor in a massive rectangle, 4–6 inches deep. Then they rake it three times per day as germination takes place. “The seed is a living organism and it produces heat and respires,” says Weitzel. “Raking lets some of the heat out and ensures consistent germination. The CO2 can escape and fresh air can get in.”

Of course, raking is just part of the job. Like any small company, the owners and employees all wear many hats. For Weitzel, that means even as he’s taken over inventory responsibilities, accounting work, and the creation of a standardized process manual, he’s still raking 3–4 times per week, preparing pallets of malt for breweries, or homebrewing a batch of beer here and there (for quality control or the occasional festival). “And it’s a malt house,” says Weitzel. “That means there’s always dust somewhere that needs to be vacuumed.”

At the end of the day, Weitzel says he gets a lot of the same satisfaction from making malt that he does from brewing. Plus, during any given year, maltsters spend time inside a variety of breweries, a luxury many brewers don’t have. Weitzel and his colleagues also have the opportunity to try a variety of beers made with their malt. “It’s like we have this little peephole into all these breweries,” says Weitzel. “Visiting them, and seeing what they make with our malt … it’s a great part of the job.” 

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