Malting with Tony Kvasnicka : Art, Science, & the Challenge Ahead

By: John Biscoe


Tony Kvasnicka builds things. Entering the driveway at Long Leaf Farms in Prince George County just south of Petersburg, you first pass the house where he and his family live--‐ he built it. When he shows you his malting equipment featuring a custom auger system for aeration and quite possibly the world’s only wood fired kiln for drying the malt--‐ he built that too. Now Kvasnicka is facing another challenge--‐ building a local malting business in a state fraught with environmental hurdles and a slow-to-convert brewing industry.  Tony Kvasnicka was raised (and still is) a farmer. His family has farmed in Prince George County since the 1890’s when they were part of a significant immigration of Czechoslovakian farmers to the county and surrounding areas. The influence of the Czech community in Prince George is apparent to this day. One of Kvasnicka’s current projects is a partnership with Ammo Brewing of Petersburg to produce a locally sourced beer for the Czech Festival in September. Most farms in the area have long focused on field production of commodity crops, such as soybeans, corn, and barley.
 


After returning from a ten year stint in the U.S. Coast Guard, Tony became interested in value-added agriculture, in addition to the usual suspects. He began growing malting barley for Rick Wasmund of Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville. Wasmund has been the Johnny Appleseed of the Virginia malting barley industry, first malting local barley for his own whiskey production then also reselling some malt to local brewers. Growing barley for malting as opposed to fodder is a more onerous process and much more dependent on favorable conditions. “One thunderstorm, batches of malting barley must be single-sourced. Very small changes in microclimate can produce kernels which differ greatly in protein content (don’t want too much) and consistency throughout a batch is a prerequisite for the malting process.  After a time of growing for Copper Fox, Tony became interested in doing his own malting. To aid in the development of his craft, Tony attended the Advanced Craft Malting School, jointly run by the French Institute for Malting and Brewing, and Hartwick College in upstate New York, currently the preeminent malting program in the United States. Virginia Tech has plans to institute a similar program in upcoming years.
 

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Kvasnicka’s enthusiasm for malting is obvious as he shows off his setup and speaks of the smell of a good batch of malting barley. He can judge the quality of a batch from the smell early in the steep. When it’s right, “It smells like a cucumber truck wrecked”. Malting is a unique combination of science and art - no two batches are the same. “Malt is a living thing. It changes daily,” says Kvasnicka. Long Leaf’s malting process begins in a 3 ton steep tank - here the barley kernels are soaked until germination occurs. From there they move into another custom crafted tank where they are layered about 2 feet deep and aerated with an opposing auger system Tony designed and built himself. This auger system has drawn the interest of maltsters elsewhere and he has advised other malt houses on setting up similar systems. In the final stage of the process, wood pellets fire the kiln, which heats the germinated grain to 120 degrees for a period of 1012 hours. Near the end of this process, the temperature is ramped up to 180 degrees for light malt. Higher temperatures produce more color and darker malt. 

As we leave Long Leaf Farm it is about 5:00 pm, and Virginia summer hot. Kvasnicka faces riding in the cab of his combine, with no air conditioning until dusk, getting in the remainder of his now-feed barley crop. (The warm days in February caused barley to begin heading early.) For the most part, he is undaunted by it, possessing the stoic optimism needed to be a lifelong farmer trying to produce a crop in a world of inconsistent conditions. Creating a malting industry out of whole cloth in Virginia is a difficult process - the input (barley) is at risk to capricious weather at inopportune times, and the cooperation of the brewing industry is needed to make the whole thing work. Brewers have been slow to this point to embrace the local product. Kvasnicka knows that a portion of this equation rests with the maltsters who must show they can produce consistent results, but wishes the brewing community were less averse to risk on this front. At the end of the day, Virginia Tech is hard at work on strains of malting barley suited for Virginia’s climate and his recent batches have tested well. As he says, “I’ll throw it away before I give you crappy product”.