“In the simplest terms, the miller’s primary role is to fracture various grains to a consistent particle size range, suitable for fermenting and subsequent distilling,” says miller and proprietor, James Brown of Barton Springs Mill in Texas. “But our responsibilities go beyond that. For example in our work with Treaty Oak Distillery, we are working directly with the farmers to secure acreage, source seed stock, check quality and consistency, and handle logistics for transport from the farm to the mill, and from the mill to the distillery.”
“If the miller is close by or on staff, you have immediacy of feedback between them and distiller, allowing for immediate changes that would affect yield and quality,” says Brown. “Different grains, or crop years may respond differently to the milling process, and the miller and distiller working together can address that.”
The theory behind milling hasn’t changed much; the basic idea is to grind your grains to the optimal consistency you need for distilling. The equipment still does the same job whether modern or historic, and even a historically-accurate stone mill can have the same level of consistency as modern equipment.
“When we first started distilling with traditional methods here, we did not have too much trouble dialling in the consistency for the grains,” says traditional miller and distiller, Steve Bashore of Mount Vernon Distillery and Gristmill. “The mill is very calibrated and I can set the gap between the stones perfectly for whatever needs we have. I have on certain distilling runs, not inserted the sifter screen in the shaker sifter, and let the meal just fall from the spout, giving us a slightly coarser material for the fermentation. The harder part was in the distillery setting those fermentations, as we had to hand sift all the solids off each fermenter, but we did it successfully, and that project remains one of the best experiences we have had in Washington’s Distillery.”
While there are stone mills in operation throughout the world, most milling for distilleries today is done on hammer mills or on roller mills.
“Both roller mills and hammer mills are used in brewing and distilling,” says Brown. “Roller mills contain one to three pairs of rollers that crush the grain into smaller and smaller pieces. Hammer mills employ rotating pieces of case-hardened steel or 'hammers’ inside a chamber. As the grain enters the chamber it is fractured by collision with the hammers, the sides of the chamber, or other pieces of grain. One third of the perimeter of the chamber is comprised of a perforated panel. Once the grain is small enough to pass through the holes in the panel, it exits the mill. In both systems, a range of particle sizes are produced. The challenge is to mill the grain small enough so it is easy to ferment without excessive amounts of fine flour.”
“There are a number of challenges when operating a traditional watermill,” says Bashore. “Since the equipment is wood, wooden gears, shafts, etc, there is a fair amount of wear and tear each year that the machine goes through and having a good maintenance and repair schedule is key. As a miller, you have to get to know your mill and its tendencies.”
In addition to milling know-how, millers need to have an understanding of the entire agricultural and business process in order to be successful.
“Independent, small-scale millers need to be Renaissance individuals,” says Brown. “An understanding of agriculture, seed breeding and development, food-production and safety, mechanics, electricity, and logistics are essential. I had no idea the act of milling would be such a small part of the art of running a mill.”
“I don’t think many in the distilling industry think of how many mills were next to distilleries in order for the spirits to be made,” says Bashore.
“The mills and distilleries are linked, joined, and have always been.”