By Rebecca King for northjersey.com
German athletes chugged it to refuel during the 2018 Olympics. Health nuts drink it to feed the good bacteria in their guts. Meatless burger companies use it to make their patties look grilled to perfection.
But before malted barley launched into the stratosphere of trendy health food crazes, it was used to create the crust on loaves of Italian bread and form the chewy skin of bagels.
In North Jersey, many bakers were (and still are) buying this goopy, molasses-like substance from the Malt Products Corporation, a family-owned company based in Saddle Brook that has been open since 1957. Malt Products Corporation started as a small, local business, but has since grown to sell barley malt and other extracts like agave, tapioca and corn sweeteners to companies worldwide.
These days, Amy Targan, a South Orange-native, serves as president and owner, though her 94-year-old father, CEO and founder Ronald Targan, still comes into the office every day.
“He took this company from nothing,” said Amy. “He started it off and grew it to a major company.”
Barley malt is created by germinating grains of barley. When the grains begin to sprout, the natural enzymes are released. Those enzymes, according to Amy, break down starches and turn them into sugar. A careful process of watering and drying partially sprouted grains results in malted barley: a viscus, brown liquid that has the power to give meatless burgers a charred look and bagels their satisfying, shiny crust.
Born in Atlantic City, Ronald opened Malt Products Corporation after graduating college, long before vegan burgers and “good gut health” was even a thought.
“My father would always take me to work with him. I was under the impression that I was co-running the company,” said Amy, who became president of the company 15 years ago. “When people ask me when I became involved with Malt Products, I say ‘I was born here.’”
Amy recalls her father walking through rows of barley grain in the Saddle Brook factory to see if they had sprouted — sticking his fingers into malt and tasting it to judge if it was ready. (A practice that’s no longer necessary due to their “big fancy lab,” said Amy.)
Five years ago the Targans opened a second factory in Ohio because in New Jersey they had a hard time disposing of their spent grain — a favorite food of cows and something they can sell to dairy farmers easily in Ohio. Two years ago they closed their original New Jersey factory, but they still keep Malt Products Corporation’s headquarters in Saddle Brook.
Though Malt Products Corporation continues to sell to New Jersey bakeries (for example, Livingston Bagels) much of its business, Amy said, comes from health food companies.
“We’ve probably sent samples to every big meatless burger company,” said Amy. She names Field Roast as one of the plant-based companies they sell to, though many of her clients she can’t disclose.
Barley malt is used in meatless burgers because it’s a key ingredient in creating the Maillard reaction, a chemical process that gives browned food its distinct flavor. Barley malt also helps counteract the unpleasant aftertaste that many protein isolates used in meatless burgers give off.
According to Amy, barley malt also has probiotics that give the healthy bacteria in our stomachs something to munch on. Some guzzle it as an energy drink, like the German Olympic ski team.
According to a 2018 New York Times article about the Pyeongchang Olympics, the brewery Krombacher sent 3,500 liters of nonalcoholic beer made with – you guessed it – barley to the German athletes. According to Johannes Scherr, the doctor for the ski team, it was swimming with immune-boosting chemicals from the barley that allowed the Olympians to recover faster from workouts.
And though barley beverages could be considered cutting edge in the vein of kombucha, using barley to stay healthy is hardly a new phenomenon. Ancient Egyptians used it in their bread, beers, soups and stews. Roman gladiators – the pinnacle of strength – were called “Barley Men,” a reference to their diet of barley and beans.
As trends shift and uses for malt fall in and out of fashion, Amy is unphased. There will always be a need for barley malt in New Jersey.
As Amy said, “You don’t have a real bagel if it doesn’t have malt in it.”