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  • Writer's picturePaige Latham Didora

What Can Craft Malt Do for You?

It’s impossible to expect the average craft beer consumer to picture a field of barley while tipping one back in a modern taproom. Still, craft beer is as much an agricultural product as it is an alcoholic one. Though the average taproom may feel appropriately far removed from the amber waves of grain, there would clearly be no beer without barley.

But a new truth is also emerging -- barley, and those who grow it, depend on beer. Barley acreage in the US is falling. The USDA reports that the amount of barley used for animal feed sunk from 319 million bushels in the 1980s to a meager 7 million expected in 2019’s harvest. Malting barley -- that is, barley destined for the kiln -- has meanwhile been a grower’s life preserver. Farmers who never grew grains at all are getting in on the venture, like Thrall Family Farms, a 600-acre tobacco farm in Windsor, Connecticut. Half of their acreage is now dedicated to malting barley plus a few other beer-friendly grains.

While barley’s assist can be attributed to the beverage industry in general, it’s really craft beer that deserves the credit. When compared to industrial-scale brewing, craft beer uses three to four times as much barley to produce the same final volume.

The first US malted barley varieties were created from feed varieties of barley. The ratios of protein to carbohydrate in these crops were abysmal for the nation’s early brewers. Even as late as the 1930’s, little progress was made on developing grains that would push the product of beer forward. In 1938, the American Malting Barley Association was founded with the goal of improving and developing varietals used in brewing and distilling.

Tasting Valley Malt at the Big Beers, Belgians, and Barleywines festival

What is Craft Malt?

Today, there is no shortage of barley that’s engineered only to become malt. Thanks in part to the enterprising nature and dedicated research of AMBA, the US is home to the largest single-site malting facility in the world, Rahr Malting Co. in Shakopee, Minnesota. But AMBA doesn’t only support the powerhouses, they exist to serve the industry overall, including a growing segment of craft malthouses. “We have always had big and small working together, which I am very proud of,” says Mike Davis, President of the AMBA since 1984. “In ‘84, there were no craft maltsters. Now they have a guild.”

Craft malt has hallmarks that echo those of craft brewers over the years - traits like size and independence. According to the Craft Maltsters Guild, formed in 2013 by 8 small businesses, a craft maltster is

  • relatively small - produces 5.5--11,000 US tons annually

  • sources ingredients locally - over 50% of grains are grown within 500 miles of the malthouse

  • Independently owned by at least 76% majority

In practice, the implications of this definition depend on who you ask. As of mid-2019, there were about 100 craft malthouses in operation with about the same number in planning.

Chris Fries, Maltster at Two Track Malting in Bismarck, North Dakota sees it another way, from the perspective of his products: “being a craft maltster allows me to create products that might not fit inside the standard box of what a type of malt should be.” Two Track grows their barley on a 6th generation family farm and produced about 400 US tons of malt, including barley and wheat, in 2019. That equates to 1,200 barrels of beer.

A bag of Two Track malt at Eastlake Craft Brewing

At Vertical Malt in Crookston, Minnesota, President Adam Wagner emphasizes the “small” characteristic of craft. Craft malt can capitalize on singular grains, estate malts, and custom or highly specialized malts. “It wouldn’t be impossible for large malthouses to produce these types of malt but because of their extremely large batch sizes it becomes difficult.” Vertical Malt sources all grains from within 10 miles of their Red River Valley facility, though expansion is likely in the future.

One of Two Track’s earliest adopters, Laughing Sun Brewing in Bismarck, began transitioning to craft malt due to the appeal of terroir. Mike Frolich, co-owner and head brewer, loves telling his guests that the grains are grown a short drive away. “I loved the idea of having our beers made with ND malt. We were using regionally grown malt, but [...] now I know exactly where it is grown, and that was really appealing to me.” It helps him connect with people who might otherwise overlook the little guy, “I feel that in today's hyper-local market, bringing a taste of your local terroir can help you stand out in the crowd.”

The Relationship

Locavore tendencies aside, what does batch size mean for craft brewers? A restrained batch size means that craft malt gets to break rules. Many craft malt houses don’t have a familiar-sounding catalog with names like Munich and Caramel 40. Maltsters want to leverage that to the craft brewer’s advantage in the form of customization and feedback.

“Brewers [...] no longer have to be stuck with what is available in a malt catalog but instead can have nearly anything they can dream up,” says Ryan Pfeifle of Farm Power Malt in Power, Montana. While most brewers may not feel “stuck” with large commercial options on the market, the possibilities in partnership with a craft malt house are endless. Everything from the modification of the kernels to the precise color of the roast can be developed interdependently. Pfeifle enjoys getting to know the brewers he works with and believes there is an added value in the symbiosis between brewer and maltster. “Few great ideas come from an online order form. Most come after a few pints together.”

Custom malting drum at Farm Power Malt

Fries explains that the relationship works both ways to the benefit of each party. Often with small malthouses, brewers give feedback about the grain, which is invaluable to the malt quality. Frolich of Laughing Sun admits that with some initial learning experiences, it wasn’t always smooth sailing, but the result has been more than worth it. “If you develop those relationships you can have the tough conversations when things don't go exactly right. We had some efficiency issues at the beginning, but loved the flavor of the malt. We worked with Chris [Fries] to get things dialed in and they have been great to work with.” Now Frolich uses nearly 100% Two Track Malt.

At Eastlake Craft Brewing in Minneapolis, Owner and Head Brewer Ryan Pitman has converted much of his malt to Two Track and hasn’t looked back. Eastlake is a quintessential urban brewery much more proximal to a city bus than a field of barley at any given moment. Unlike Laughing Sun, Pitman’s average customer may not feel any connection to barley at all, much less to the soil of North Dakota. Instead, he’s found other advantages, including the small business relationship. “The people we connect with are the people who work on the farm and own the malting operation,” Pitman explains. He values the direct communication and malt quality.

The Advantages

While it may seem natural that craft malt shines best in the specialty grain category, brewers have found numerous advantages with using craft base malt. At Eastlake, Two Track’s Badlands Sunset Pilsner is the exclusive base malt. Employing craft malt in several brews can contribute to a recognizable house flavor with little to no change in cost. “We've been really pleased with the flavors we get from Two Track's malt,” says Pitman. “We've actually seen a cost savings from the decreased shipping costs and fuel surcharges, so for us, it's a win-win situation.”

Eastlake's Southside Pils

Andrea Stanley, Owner-Maltster of Valley Malt in Hadley, Massachusetts and former President of the Craft Maltsters Guild, sees a nominal increase in cost as a possibility for those using craft malt, but she agrees that shipping costs may actually decrease. She also believes consumers who are aware that the grain is local are often willing to pay nominally more. Farm Power Malt argues that this sort of awareness is key: “I do believe consumers are willing to pay more for beer made with craft malt. The problem is most consumers don't know what malt is. When a brewery uses craft malt, they should also take the next step to inform their customers,” says Pfeifle. Over at Two Track, each bag of grain is printed with a scan code indicating the source and the farmer, and they offer marketing material to breweries.

“Consistency is a universal concern of both big and small. You have to deliver a quality product.” Similarly, while some small breweries may struggle with quality, some of the nation’s best breweries are very small. --Mike Davis of the AMBA

Beyond customization and flavor, the use of craft malt offers fringe benefits that may not be obvious to the consumer but should be marketed. Valley Malt, for example, underscores the importance of land stewardship, a value shared by many craft beer consumers. “For us, craft malt always starts and ends with the local land,” notes Stanley. Biodiversity is a pillar of her business. “Valley Malt has been bringing back historical landrace varieties of barley from 5 grams of seed up to 30 acres in an 8-year span.” Landrace varieties are those that are locally-adapted, traditional, and have been developed over time. In the case of barley, this meant a lot of hand-weeding and research.

At Vertical Malt, Wagner is also enthusiastic about lesser-known varietals. “What happens when you have [...] ancient grains that haven’t benefited from decades of modern plant genetics or breeding programs? What about discarded varieties from these same breeding programs, typically rejected due to lack of ‘mass-market’ appeal?” The yet unopened doors promise new horizons for maltsters and brewers alike.

The Hesitation

Just as small batch size can be an advantage, hesitation about consistency and quality is closely tied to the idea of small batches. One can imagine that the variability from batch to batch, or bag to bag come ordering time, could be greater. Wagner finds this fear understandable. “Many brewers worry about the quality and consistency of craft malt and I don’t blame them one bit,” he says. “The variations between batches in the malthouse is something that we are always fighting.”

Malteurop in Great Falls, Montana

Large operations like Rahr, or Malteurop in Great Falls, Montana, have the advantage of blending by the truckload. By using barley from multiple farms with different climates and soils, the differences from batch to batch can be mitigated. Even changes from season to season in future base malt become dilute when the process is complete.

At St. Paul’s Summit Brewing Company, Founder and President Mark Stutrud has been approached by craft maltsters from time to time. “The caution that I have, unless you’re a trained maltster with education, [...] is a wide variance and inconsistency.” He acknowledges that a number of malting operations have now reached a significant scale and are aiming to dial in their practices. Still, being a regional brewery making about 120,000bbl annually, the fledgling craft malt industry is not of much interest.

Is the feasibility of using craft malt a matter of scale and proportion? At Summit, using a specialty grain for a large portion of the malt bill might mean using a very small farm or malthouse’s entire crop, a crop that may never be replicated; one quarter’s worth of production, 30,000 barrels of beer, would require about 10,000 tons of malt, the upper limit to remain craft by the guild’s definition. Emphasis on single batches of malt from individual barley varietals may not suit breweries of scale. “Blending accounts for differences between farmers and fields and creates a more homogenous product,” he explains. “But, when coupled to really small scale brewing, craft malt is not necessarily a bad thing.”

“Just do it. You play around with new hop varietals all the time. Join the cool kids and start experimenting with craft malt.” --Andrea Stanley of Valley Malt

In Massachusetts, Stanley sees consistency as one key goal. Valley Malt starts in many cases with unique or historic grains. “We then take those grains and process them into malt trying to make the highest quality, most consistent malt while being environmentally sustainable as possible.”

Malt quality has come a very long way since 2013, when the Guild formed. Wagner believes there is no point being a craft maltster if the malt isn’t world-class. Vertical Malt’s operations begin with meticulous cleaning and color sorting as the grain leaves the field. The grain batches are carefully monitored, even during storage, for moisture, protein, plumpness, kernel weight, and more. The malted batches are studied in an internal lab and also sent out for additional data gathering. “There are measurements cataloged throughout the entire malting process.” It is this attention to detail that guides future batches and informs nuances of the malthouse.

Eastlake Mud in Your Eye stout

At AMBA, Davis challenges the accordance between small and inconsistent. “Consistency is a universal concern of both big and small. You have to deliver a quality product.” He points out that craft beer itself is much the same way. While some small breweries may struggle with quality, some of the nation’s best breweries are very small. Quality may promote growth, but it’s not a causative relationship. Instead he wants brewers to ask themselves, “Can I get consistent quality from this supplier?” If so, use them. “Batch size doesn’t have to influence quality.”

Find your Maltster

Whether the goal is to provide craft beer a sense of place, or to reduce fuel footprint, or simply try something new, craft malt offers brewers a new playbook. Yes, it may seem daunting to fix what’s, in most cases, not broken, but some small-scale experimentation is a good place to start.

The breadth of options is strong and growing. For the past three years, craft malt production has increased its total production. In 2017, craft malthouses produced 120 tons and in 2018 the figure more than doubled to 270 tons. In 2019, 485 tons of malt were projected (and the final tallies are yet to be finalized). In choosing new ingredients, brewers can look to their company’s values for guidance. How might local business partners and their practices enhance these values as well as the beer?

From the unique drum-kiln technology at Farm Power Malt to the affinity for customization at Two Track, each producer has something to offer. Valley Malt has become synonymous with historical resurrection and Vertical Malt has integrated hyper-local growing into their model.

Stanley offers some advice: “Just do it. You play around with new hop varietals all the time. Join the cool kids and start experimenting with craft malt.” At the end of the day, brewing is the best kind of chemistry.

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