Levante Brewing Takes Beer Back to the 18th Century

Here's what happens when you hang out all day at a grist mill.
Malt

Photo courtesy Jim Adams

If you’ve never seen a genuine, 18th-century water-powered grist mill running, you’re missing out.

Now, I don’t visit many historical sites, but if I do, it’s usually because someone’s dragging me along. Or because there’s food involved. Or beer. So when Jim Adams from Levante Brewing contacted me to say that they’d be making an 18th century-inspired beer, and that doing so involved using a grist mill dating back to the 1700s, I was captivated.

They invited me to come along with them while they crushed the grains at the Newlin Grist Mill in Glenn Mills, PA. Of course I said yes—it isn’t often I get that kind of invitation (actually, this never happens). So I took the drive over to the mill to meet with Jim Adams, Tim Floros, and Eric Santostefano of Levante, Josh Oliver of Deer Creek Malthouse, and Tony Shahan and his crew at the Newlin Grist Mill.

The property is beautiful, with a fishing pond, a visitor’s center, and a big wood-and-stone millhouse. This is just what I saw; there’s also a whole park to explore, and several historical buildings probably worth taking a look at (even if there’s no beer there).

The mill was built in 1704 and operated continuously until 1941. After almost two decades of dormancy, the 9th generation descendant of the original builder bought the mill and restored it. Now, it’s overseen by a non-profit that was started in 1960 and is directed by Shahan–a man so passionate about his job that the excitement just radiates off of him. “It’s neat to find collaborators like this in the modern world…that the connections are still there.”

WaterWheel

Photo courtesy Eric Santostefano

Shahan asked what the plan was for the beer (which is yet to be named). “So before, we were trying to go off the old recipes and say, ‘okay, what did they brew back then?’ but we kind of decided to add our own little twist and say, ‘what could they have brewed back then?” said Floros.

At this point, Shahan had one interjection. “Do me a favor, from a historian’s point of view, use ‘historically inspired’—don’t use ‘they could have.’”

Fair enough. After all, the guys at Levante aren’t taking an old colonial beer recipe and re-making it. They’re taking resources that were available centuries ago and making something new out of them, while utilizing a tool that was so prevalent at that time—a grist mill.

So what’s in the beer? “We wanted to use ingredients primarily that they could have gotten, so the Fuggles variety of hops from Great Britain is one of the oldest variety of hops that we know of them using,” says Floros. Aside from the hops, which are being used to balance out the sweetness of the beer, they’re putting in grains of paradise (commonly used in place of pepper in colonial recipes).

The beer is being fermented with London Ale Yeast, a strain that the colonials would have had access to. For the secondary fermentation, they’ve added black tea leaves infused with orange oil, and they plan to “dry-leaf” (like dry-hopping, but with tea leaves) the beer to accentuate the black tea flavor.

It isn’t beer without grains, and Levante wanted to use only the best they could find locally—which meant malts from Deer Creek Malthouse. Just a few short miles from the mill, Deer Creek is the first commercial malthouse operating in Pennsylvania since Prohibition. They produce high-quality craft malts from grains either grown on their farm or within 50 miles of it, and work with a number of local craft breweries, including Victory, Free Will, Sly Fox, Tröegs, and of course, Levante.

Why do these craft breweries use malts from Deer Creek? It’s a quality thing, and Deer Creek doesn’t mess around. Although they do like to stay local, Josh Oliver, owner of Deer Creek, says that sometimes sacrifices need to be made. “We’re not going to use crappy barley just because it’s local…there’s a quality requirement that’s more important than being local.” Either way, the end product is good malts that are exclusively their own flavor. “For us, we want something with character that expresses the Pennsylvania terroir,” says Oliver.

On this particular day, Oliver brought several bags of Deer Creek malts. After chatting for a bit, the guys agreed to get things rolling.

Once the mill started, we watched as the grain went through the hopper to the millstones, and the room slowly began to fill with grain powder, which would soon accumulate on the ground. We rushed downstairs to see the crushed malt come out the other end.

As it was coming out, Shahan held some of it in his hand to show what it looked like. The size of the grist varied, but he expected that to happen from the beginning. “This goes against everything that we typically do here at the mill,” says Shahan, which includes grinding corn, just like was done back in the 1700s.

Shahan had to adjust the stones until they reached the ideal grind. Floros acknowledged the fact that they had to leave some room for error, and they concluded the yield would be lower than anticipated. So while this isn’t the most economical way to crush grains for beer, it’s still a cool way of doing it.

GrainHopper

Photo courtesy Eric Santostefano

Adams came up to me. “You wanna see this,” he said, and walked me out the door of the building and around to another door, which took us to the water wheel. “How awesome is that?”

It was pretty damn awesome—the creaking of the wheel, the rushing water, the swampy smell that filled the room. I stood there for a while, just staring at it. What I was watching was something that was done so frequently and so long ago, but is now one of the rare ways we can experience a piece of history coming to life in the modern day.

After about a half an hour of grinding, the guys realized that this whole process was going to take a lot longer than predicted. The first bag was still going through, and there were about four or five more to go. On top of that, this is only the test batch, so they’re working on a smaller scale than what they’ll be doing with the final.

Adams suggested that we head over to Deer Creek so I could see the malthouse, so Floros stayed behind with Shahan and the rest of us hopped in Oliver’s car and drove to the farm so Oliver could give us a tour.

Deer Creek was impressive—especially considering it’d essentially started as a decrepit barn full of scraps. They cleaned the place up significantly and turned it into their malthouse. “A lot of the equipment is made by us,” says Oliver, and that includes  their kiln.

Millhouse

Photo courtesy Kelly Alderfer

The coolest part of the malthouse was the germination room—an immaculate, temperature and humidity-controlled space where the malt is spread out after being in the steep tank for about a day and a half (where the germination process begins). For roughly four days, the malt is raked by hand every six to eight hours before being dried in the kiln.

The whole process is something that takes a lot of patience and care to do properly. You look at their list of clients, and I think it’s safe to say that the Deer Creek crew is doing a damn good job.

On that note, all three businesses impressed me that day. In addition to Deer Creek’s portfolio and malthouse, Levante is living up to their mantra, “elevate your craft,” by doing something rather unconventional within the craft beer community, and it takes a certain kind of hard work and passion for history to keep a centuries-old mill up and running.

And what’s even cooler than the exceptional commitment of each is that they came together to make something that utilizes each of their individual talents. Plus, a portion of the profit from the beer that will eventually come of all this collaborating will be going back to the non-profit running the mill. “We just thought it was a great opportunity to work in the local community, with a startup company like Deer Creek who provides our grains, but to also be able to give back,” says Adams.

The test batch is in the works now, so no one knows yet what the outcome of all of this will be. It’s an experiment. An adventure. If nothing else, Santostefano says, “It’s a beer with a story now.” And that’s what really matters.

Levante Brewing [Official]