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Gearhead: Mills for the Grist

Cracking that barley kernel isn’t what it used to be. Today, brewers who want to dial in their grist and brew better, more efficient beer have a wide range of options. John M. Verive demystifies the increasingly complex options.

John M. Verive Jun 11, 2021 - 17 min read

Gearhead: Mills for the Grist Primary Image

Photo: Courtesy Ziemann

In the traditional English folk song “John Barleycorn,” the eponymous subject lives a long life and meets a grisly end—cut down at the knees, tied to a cart, beaten, hanged, drowned in a pit, tossed to and fro, and scorched by flame. But the worst indignity is yet to come for poor John. As told in the version by Steve Winwood’s Traffic in 1970: “But the miller he has served him worst and bad/For he ground him between two stones.”

As a personification of the cereal crop that shares his name, John Barleycorn’s story ends with revelry when he’s transformed into beer and whiskey. However, while half a dozen verses cover the harvest and processing of the barley, no mention is made of the brewing process, nor of the brewer. The song’s hero is the kernel with the seemingly supernatural power of rebirth—and why shouldn’t the barleycorn be eulogized by poets and rock stars? Just as humans have shaped the evolution of the grass, barley has shaped the evolution of human civilization; today, we’re still cultivating John Barleycorn and showing him our “deadly rage” of harvesting, processing, and malting him to brew our beer. Only the technology has changed: Now, the miller doesn’t use two stones but two (or four, or six) stainless-steel rollers.

Crushing It with Innovations

“It’s our dream brewery, and we spared no expense on what matters for the quality of the beer,” says Russian River founder Vinnie Cilurzo about their two-year-old production facility in Windsor, California, a few miles from Russian River’s famed brewpub in Santa Rosa. When discussing efficiency gains and a “big increase in quality” in flagship Pliny the Elder and house favorite STS Pils, Cilurzo points to the malt-handling system and a T-Rex wet mill from Ziemann-Holvrieka.

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