Earlier this year, Greg Johnsman from Geechie Boy Mill stopped off at Revelry Brewing, one of his regular customers. "He had the Jimmy Red dent corn with him," says Ryan Coker, the head brewer at Revelry, "since his next stop was at Sean's down the way to sell him the grits."
The Sean in question is Sean Brock of McCrady's and Husk Restaurant, and Jimmy Red is an heirloom variety of local corn that Brock has been instrumental in helping resurrect. (Its name comes from James Island and the deep red color the kernels assume when dried.)
"He put a bug in Sean's ear," Coker says, and a collaboration was born. The result is Amber Waves, a heritage grain malt liquor, which will be officially be launched to the market on Sun. Sept. 18 at McCrady's.
That's right: malt liquor, not beer. And not because it's cheap, hi-test stuff. It is six percent alcohol, which would have been a lot two decades ago, but in these days of high gravity beers it's pretty middle of the road. Instead, the designation is due to the grains that go into the brew, which include Jimmy Red corn and a whole lot more.
In beer, the primary grain is barley. Revelry calls Amber Waves a malt liquor because rice and corn make up half the grains — 25 percent each Jimmy Red corn and Carolina Gold Rice — while the two barleys, North Carolina 2-Row and Virginia 6-Row, compose another 40 percent. The remainder is North Carolina-Grown rye. It's what Brock and Coker are terming a "historically correct" brew, but not because the end product itself is meant to replicate what Carolinians were drinking back in the 19th century. "By 'historically correct' we mean the process we use," Coker says. "These are the grains that they would have had available."
From the time English colonists first arrived, brewing in the South was limited by ingredients. Beer is traditionally made from malted barley — that is, barley grains that are allowed to sprout and then slow-dried in a kiln. The process converts the seed's starch into simpler sugars and produces enzymes that will later assist in fermentation. But barley never grew well in the South, and local malthouses were few and far between. Early brewers — including Charleston's Edmund Egan — experimented with a range of different grains and approaches while they worked to establish reliable barley supplies.
For modern day brewers like Coker, using local grain is no longer a necessity, and it brings its own set of challenges.
When barley and other grains, like wheat, are used in malted form in beer-making, their sugars are released easily and quickly. Low-enzyme grains like rice and corn, however, must go through an initial process to "gelatinize" the starches, which means using heat to break down the starch granules. That allows the enzymes in the mash process to convert those starches to sugars, and those sugars, in turn, are what the yeast turns into alcohol during fermentation.
When making beer with malted grains, the mash process takes an hour or less. "We're adding hours and hours to the process," Coker says. "What we had to do was put the corn and rice in a cereal mash, which is where Sean comes in."
The gelatinization temperature for rice is lower than corn but broader in range, so the grains had to be added to the mash kettle in a staggered order and carefully simmered. But, as Coker puts it, "Who better to cook a giant pot of grits than Sean Brock?"
But the whole point of making an heirloom grain beer wasn't the challenge itself but rather a concept near and dear to farm-to-table chefs, and one that's starting to gain more interest among brewers, too. "It allows us to provide more of our terroir," Coker says.
It's one of the paradoxes of the craft beer revival up until now: amid the great flourishing of flavors and styles, there hasn't been much differentiation among beers from place to place. The stuff made in Portland, Or., could very well be made in Portland, Maine, or Birmingham, Ala., for that matter.
Today, most craft beers — regardless of where they are brewed — have as their base barley that is imported from Canada and the UK. "We're all getting [our malt] from one to three suppliers," Coker says, "so all our beers are being made from the same grains."
That is beginning to change. In recent years, craft malthouses have started popping up in various parts of the country, with a mission of providing brewers with locally grown and malted grains. These include Riverbend Malthouse in Asheville, the only malthouse in the Carolinas, which was inspired by Rick Wasmund of Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Va., who had established their own traditional floor-malting process to prepare the primary grain for distilling into whiskey.
Riverbend was one of the collaborators on Amber Waves, supplying North Carolina-grown barley and rye, as were two of Brock's favorite suppliers, Geechee Boy for the Jimmy Red and Anson Mills in Columbia for the Carolina Gold Rice. "The idea is to let these grains shine," Coker says. "The grains really are the star.
"I use the word terroir a lot because I think it really affects the flavor," he adds. "It gives us a sense of place."
You can sample that taste of place Sunday, September 18th, at 3 p.m., when McCrady's Tavern hosts a release event. For $25, each guest gets a 22 oz. bottle of Amber Waves as well as snacks from Brock. After that, Amber Waves will be available on the menu at McCrady's Tavern as well as at Revelry Brewery, and it will be sold in 22 oz. bottles only.
Tickets for the release event are available at citypapertickets.com.