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.
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.
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.”