Brendan Carroll on the malting floor at CNC Malt. Photo by Kristy Locklin.

Brendan and Oana Carroll transformed an old elementary school into one giant science project … and the end result is alcohol.

The couple owns CNC Malt, a Butler County-based business that uses locally sourced grains such as barley, wheat and oats to make small-batch, craft malts for more than 20 area beer and booze makers.

“I feel like the hops get a lot of the attention, because grains aren’t as sexy,” Oana Carroll says. “But malt is the soul of beer. We’re like the handshake between the farmers and the brewers.”

Malt contributes to the color, flavor, mouthfeel and aromas of a beverage and brewers are always experimenting with new recipes. The Carrolls are happy to help out.

In 2016, the pair purchased the former Clearfield Township Elementary School, a 70-year-old, 30,000-square-foot building in Fenelton.

The walls still boast chalkboards and children’s artwork, but the gymnasium now houses towering steel tanks, the teacher’s lounge is a laboratory and classrooms have been converted into an old-fashioned malting floor similar to ones in Europe, where most alcohol companies source their malt.

A skeleton crew keeps the operation running. Without a student body, the place is eerily quiet, unless the Carrolls’ young sons are playing inside.

A chemical engineer by trade, Brendan Carroll uses both traditional methods and modern technology to create malts that give beer and spirits their unique flavor profile.

Photo courtesy of CNC Malt.

After going through a series of silos and tanks, the grain is spread out on the malting floor, where it is turned three times a day to ensure even germination and aeration.

Typically, this tedious process is done with a rake and a shovel, but a nearby fabrication shop custom-built a machine that makes the job easier. The grain is then dried in a kiln.

The quality control process involves sipping malt teas for each batch coming out of the kiln. Additionally, the malted grains can be roasted for use in stouts and porters. This grain-to-glass concept is something Brendan Carroll takes very seriously.

He grew up on an Eastern Pennsylvania farm that grew hops, so his beer education started at an early age. After years spent working in the oil and gas industry, he wanted to get back to his literal roots.

Rather than open a brewery in an already competitive market, the Carrolls decided to start at the beginning of beer: grain.

Photo courtesy of CNC Malt.

Area farmers grow premium grains and are paid nearly three times the price of livestock feed grains. With the extra money, comes extra effort; the plants must be tended to on a regular basis. The region’s climate and soil come through in the grain and, inevitably, in the taste of the liquid.

It’s Pennsylvania in a pint.

CNC has already malted 2,500 bushels of barley this year, with another 3,200 to go. The company has seen an uptick in sales during the pandemic, as Midwest and European supply chains are backlogged.

Stick City Brewing Co. in Mars has a contracts with CNC Malt, which is just 20 miles away from the Irvine Street taproom. But their connection is more than just geographical.

“That’s the elementary school my dad went to as a kid,” says Nick Salkeld, co-owner of Stick City. “My grandfather laid the original tile floor.”

The Salkeld family named their brewery after their campsite in Cabot and some of the grains used in CNC Malt are even grown on their property.

Stick City’s latest release, Glade Run Pale Ale, is brewed exclusively with locally grown and malted grain and processed hops (CNC also dries and pelletizes them for area hop farmers).

The beer, which is 5.5% ABV, captures the character of the local terroir and is also certified by PA Preferred, a Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture program that helps residents find products grown and processed in the state.

Twenty percent of the sales of the pale ale are donated to the Glade Run Lake Conservancy — because Stick City is all about preserving natural areas and waterways.

The folks at Lincoln Avenue Brewery in Bellevue are also passionate about patronizing local businesses and protecting the environment. Approximately 90% of the company’s malt comes from CNC.

“You have to be dedicated to making an impact,” says Grant Saylor, Lincoln Avenue’s co-owner and head brewer. “The malt is more expensive, but you’re keeping the money close to home, not in Europe. It’s a no-brainer to support someone who is malting local crops.”

Abjuration Brewing in Stowe Township is a small operation that uses a lot of CNC malts.

“We fairly regularly use their pale ale malt in IPAs to boost the bready flavor and the protein content for that hazy look,” says Dave Hallam, co-owner of Abjuration. “One of the best things about knowing your maltster as a brewer is that you can request custom products and you get to play with unconventional grains. On top of that, they are some of the nicest people I know.”

Last week, Oana Carroll delivered wheat malt to Insurrection AleWorks in Heidelberg. Roughly 20% of the total grain bill for the brewery’s hoppy beers is made with malt from CNC. Insurrection recently produced a hefeweizen and a Kolsch made exclusively with CNC malt.

“Brendan is highly passionate about his craft, which we can appreciate,” says Brad Primozic, head brewer at Insurrection. “It’s nice to see that CNC is expanding their business as all the breweries in town are expanding. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We grow and support based on each other’s work.”

As breweries and distilleries continue to pop up around the region, CNC is happy to take on more business.

The Carrolls have hosted homebrewing groups, members of the Pink Boots Society, random beer geeks and a few Clearfield Township Elementary School graduates who stop by to reminisce. Their memories hang in the air like the scent of local grains and hops.

“That’s the most important thing we do for our community; we offer the brewer and their consumers unique flavors,” Oana Carroll says. “Every variety of barley tastes a little different. We are producing something here you can’t get in Belgium or Germany. It’s the flavor of Pennsylvania.”

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.