FEATURE // Amber Waves of Grain

An increasing demand for locally grown and malted barley has independent maltsters on the rise—but is it sustainable?

Story by Adrienne so

Photograph by Jonathon Coy

As anyone who has ever taken a brewery tour knows, beer is composed of four simple ingredients: water, barley, yeast, and hops. While each component is essential, hops have gotten a disproportionate share of the attention. They’re sexy, aromatic flowers, free for the plucking in many a backyard. They’re accessible and understandable, in a way that an arguably more important ingredient—barley—is not.

It’s hard to develop a personal, emotional relationship with a commodity that’s grown thousands of miles away, malted in large factories, and shipped to your doorstep in tidy little bags. But a handful of research scientists, farmers, maltsters, and brewers across the country are working hard to deconstruct and rebuild the long, complex supply chain that begins in a distant field and ends in the beer packaged and consumed by each of us at home.

For a society and industry that places an increasing emphasis on locavorism, it’s shocking that we haven’t paid more attention to barley. The questions pile up on top of one another: When we say that we’re drinking a locally produced beer, is anything in it more local than the water? Where does the grain come from, and does its quality affect the beer’s taste at all? And shouldn’t we pay a little more attention to the most important ingredient in the sudsy beverage that we all know and love?

Nowadays, a grain of barley that is destined to be malted and mashed into your favorite craft beer is probably grown in the American Midwest or somewhere in the Dakotas, Idaho, Montana, or eastern Washington. Economies of scale in transportation dictate that most large-scale maltsteries, like Cargill, Rahr, and Briess, are built near the grain they’re malting. It’s easier, and far cheaper, to transport malt than it is to transport raw grain.

In order to start a small, local maltstery, then, you need to find grain that’s grown near your home. And since most people don’t own 40 acres of farming land that’s sitting fallow, you need to persuade a farmer to grow it for you. But what kind of barley do you plant? Will it grow in your local climate or succumb helplessly to some mysterious disease? Most importantly, how can we justify all this effort if we don’t even know whether the barley will be suitable for brewing?

Plant scientists in agricultural programs, like those at North Dakota State University, the University of Idaho, and Oregon State University, are working to answer these basic questions in order to better serve the craft brewing industry. Although craft beer only accounts for about six percent of the beer sold in the United States, craft brewers account for 21.4 percent of the malt that’s purchased. The Brewers Association estimates that craft brewers might use as much as one-third of malt produced in the United States.

Given how much malting barley craft brewers consume, it is ridiculous that they don’t currently have a larger say in what kind of malting barley is planted, or where and how it is grown—issues with which larger companies like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors have long concerned themselves.

Many forward-thinking breweries, like Delaware’s Dogfish Head, have already become members of the American Malting Barley Organization—a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring an adequate supply of malting barley for the brewing industry. Voting members can approve experimental barley lines to be placed on AMBA’s growing list, which makes it easier for farmers to apply for insurance and grow particular grain in amounts large enough to contract with a malting company.

But in order to approve those lines, interested craft brewers have to learn which kinds of barley would be worth pursuing—which is not an uncomplicated matter, nor a quick one. It takes anywhere from 10 to 14 years in between making the initial barley cross to contracting with malt companies for production.

At the 2013 Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, D.C., Dr. Juliet Marshall, an associate professor at the University of Idaho in plant and soil sciences, starts a talk on the origins of malt flavor. Petite and wry, you can barely see her over the podium, but you can certainly hear her as she issues a call to arms. “It’s a question of: Are you going to continue to accept what you get or start driving demand?” Marshall says. “What do we need to modify [about barley] in order to get it more accurate for your needs? What kind of moisture is required? Do we need 11 to 12, or maybe 8 to 10 protein percentage? Can we optimize the enzyme profile?”

The room is full of creative, intelligent, passionate industry professionals, and they certainly seem like the appropriate audience for these questions. But most appear slightly stunned, as if they weren’t used to being addressed in such a manner by a woman who could have convincingly played the role of Auntie Em in a stage version of The Wizard of Oz. “It was a great talk,” I say to her afterwards.

“Thanks,” she says, a little ruefully. “I have to admit, I was hoping to get a little more in the way of a response.” With U.S. barley acreage on a continued decline from the 1990s, Marshall notes that there need to be coordinated efforts to fulfill local barley production for brewers. Craft brewers currently import a lot of European malts, but by paying more attention to American-grown barley, “[brewers] can source locally grown, high-quality barley, promote growers, invest in local agriculture… and give me more research opportunities!” she finishes, with a grin.

It seems that the question of whether the type of barley affects the flavor should have a relatively simple answer: Yes. Fresh, locally grown tomatoes taste better on a salad, and local strawberries taste better on ice cream, so why not local barley? But for maltsters, the question is slightly more complicated.

Malting is the process of germinating grain in order to convert the seed’s starches into usable sugars. It’s also a process that requires a fair bit of time, space, and engineering skill. First the grain has to be soaked, or steeped, in order to start the germination process. Once the seed has just barely begun to sprout, the germination is halted and the green malt is converted into toasty brewing malt by heating, or kilning, it for a particular length of time at a particular temperature.

Thus, a maltster controls three separate factors—time, temperature, and moisture—in order to produce an astounding variety of malts from a single type of grain. In order to keep his recipes accurate, a maltster needs consistency, not complexity, in the grain that he buys.

Dr. Pat Hayes, a professor of barley breeding and genetics at Oregon State University, neatly illustrates this point for me in his office in Corvallis, Oregon. He lays out six packets of malted barley in front of me, each a distinct color. Each packet, he says, contains the same type of barley but malted in six different ways.

Hayes has white hair and a vigorous white mustache, wearing a buttoned-up shirt tucked into jeans; he has a Jeffersonian air of the academic farmer, equally at home in front of a computer or walking behind a tractor. “I don’t want to disparage the maltster’s craft, or the brewer’s craft at all,” he says. Hayes merely contends that the type of barley could add an additional layer of flavor beyond what malting and brewing have already made possible.

Given the Northwest’s booming craft beer industry, it makes no sense that there is very little local malting barley production. Hayes’ lab has been attempting to address this lack by breeding and growing malting barleys at OSU’s Hyslop Farm. But last year, a graduate student in Hayes’ lab decided to take a different tack.

Ryan Graebner, a research assistant in the Crop and Soil Sciences department under Hayes, hypothesized that centuries of breeding for only the most hardy, consistent barley strains might have bred out flavor components over time. What if beers brewed with ancient grains are incredibly flavorful, compared to the bland, industrialized, high-yield barley strains of today? Hayes’ lab solicited the help of Dr. Harold Bockelman, the curator of the National Small Grains Collection. Bockelman selected 2,062 ancient barley lines that he felt best represented the diversity of ancient barleys.

Hayes’ team grew the lines in Corvallis, Oregon and then selected the best-performing varieties. Then they isolated genes of interest that could possibly affect flavor traits. Seven hundred lines survived, of those 114 grew and were malted by Rahr Malting Company in Minnesota. Tom Nielsen at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. conducted the sensory analysis—making wort from the prospective grains—and initial tasting. Currently, Hayes’ team has compiled sensory data on 12 lines, with results ranging from clean, malty roasts from Ecuador, to “gassy, dirty” malts made from barley grown in Algeria.

While Hayes’ and Graebner’s data and process are fascinating, in terms of what they can provide the industry, the data might be less useful than the fact that Hayes has provided a model for how such research might continue in the future. Over the years, Hayes has linked growers, maltsters, and brewers into a team that can take a potential line of barley all the way from the field to the bottle. If independent maltsters are to succeed, it’s clear that the many boundaries between the links of this supply chain will need to be similarly broken down.

The demand for locally grown, locally malted grain is already here: As Graebner and crop and soil sciences faculty research assistant Scott Fisk show me OSU’s test malting system, Fisk casually remarks that several local breweries have already expressed interest in their malt. This, despite the fact that the malting system is still in construction and no one can be certain of the quality of the malting barley that might be produced from their experiments.

Craft brewers eager to use locally malted grain have a task on their hands to find it. Andrea Stanley of Massachusetts-based Valley Malt estimates that there are about three dozen people in the country trying to start regional maltsteries, but these hopeful entrepreneurs face a daunting number of
logistical problems.

First, they must first find a farmer willing to grow barley in small amounts. Once they’ve grown the barley and harvested it, they must find a place to store both the hulled barley and the finished malt. Then they have to find the space and materials to build their malting equipment. Given the number of hurdles they have to leap, aspiring maltsters have a greater chance of success if they can combine the roles of farmer, businessman, engineer, and possibly brewer.

In this respect, Zach Christensen of Heritage Malt is more fortunate than most. A fifth-generation farmer in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Christensen owns Christensen Farms, a medium-sized family farm comprising about 3,500 acres on which the Christensens have grown grass seed, clover, and hazelnuts for over a century. A big, bounding black Lab greets me when I arrive, and I wander through large, mysterious, NASA-like aluminum structures and big-wheeled tractors before finding the farm offices.

As a farmer, the logistics that baffle most independent maltsters were no-brainers for Christensen. In 2008, Christian Krogstad from House Spirits Distillery contacted Christensen about raising custom barley. But “the quantity that he wanted to raise wasn’t large enough to have it malted anywhere,” Christensen said. “After going back and forth a little bit and learning about the process, we decided we should be able to do that.”

Christensen had the space, the skills, and the tools; he just needed a little bit of know-how. “Unfortunately, the consolidation in the marketplace really drained the resources. There are very few people who know anything about malt, let alone how to do it. Maybe you could throw out a job offer in your article?” (Zach, consider it done). He poked around on the Internet and took a short malting course at North Dakota State University, then he rolled up his sleeves. “The first rendition was out of a turkey fryer and my kitchen oven,” he said. “Then we built some contraptions out of 50-gallon Tupperware totes and converted an old clothes dryer into a kiln.”

The current pilot system can malt 1,000 pounds of grain at a time, resulting in about 850 pounds of malt. The plastic germination tank sits next to a square kiln—a large metal bin with a grated bottom that is heated by a fan-and-tube system. In size and shape, the maltstery looks like a jungle gym and allows Christensen to control the precise temperature at which the malt will be kilned. When I asked him how much it might cost for someone else to put together a similar system, he looked momentarily baffled.

“You know, I’m not really sure,” he said. “We built it out of stuff that we had just lying around. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be cheap.”

But everyone who has taken the effort to install and run a malting system says that it’s worth it. “Great Western and Rahr and Briess—they all make tremendous malt,” Christensen said. “It’s predictable. Brewers have been able to capitalize on that white bread… but when we go in and help them brew, [brewers] are always talking about how bready and fresh [ours] smells.”

In fact, Krogstad did three comparison batches of House Spirits’ signature White Dog Whiskey, one with Rahr malt, one with Briess malt, and one with Christensen’s own Heritage malt. “The side-by-side comparison was pretty substantial. I gloat a little bit, but I think ours is the best.”

Perhaps ardor does have a flavor component, because malts from Stanleys’ Valley Malt likewise startle and fascinate brewers when they mash it in. Andrea and Christian Stanley started their maltstery in Hadley, Massachusetts, after discovering a significant hole in the market. “We’d been interested in the idea of starting a brewery using local grains,” said Andrea. “We took it for granted that we’d be able to find farmers to grow local grain for us, not realizing that [for us] the closest malt house was in Wisconsin. That opened our eyes to the missing piece of the puzzle.”

Andrea was a social worker; her husband, Christian, was a mechanical engineer with a background in process automation. Notwithstanding their backgrounds, they became, in Andrea’s words, “obsessed with malt.” In 2010, they started their business with a one-ton malting system. In that first year, they malted about 25,000 pounds of grain and knew, immediately, that they had to expand.

Like Christensen, the Stanleys had a significant asset in Christian’s skill set. They were able to build a top-of-the-line, stainless steel malting system (although they recently upgraded, purchasing a four-ton system from a Canadian maltster, Malterie Frontenac in Quebec). The Stanleys’ second great asset was Andrea’s passion. “The creative side of what I do is specialty malts,” she said. “Chocolate rye, roasted oats—[with] a local, small malthouse, the possibilities are limitless in terms of what we could make for you.”

And also like Christensen, the Stanleys are going into the farming side as well. “You can’t make great malt from crappy barley,” Andrea said. The Stanleys started planting test plots in 2010; three years later, they’re currently leasing about 60 acres, with 20 of those in grain for malting at any given time.

“Beer is an agricultural product,” Andrea concluded in her talk at the 2013 Craft Brewers Conference. Supporting the growth of local maltsteries also supports the livelihoods of the family farms, like Christensen’s, that supply them with grain. “When you can connect a brewer with the farmer that grew his grain, that’s something special.”

Many people, like the Stanleys themselves, have commented on the similarities between regional maltsters now and craft brewers 30 years ago. Now, as then, scrappy entrepreneurs banded together, trading knowledge and skills in an attempt to provide alternatives to the large conglomerates that dominate the industry.

A few, more established, maltsters have provided support and inspiration to the newcomers, such as Colorado Malting Company in Alamosa, Colorado. One of Colorado’s particular beneficiaries is a small brewery-cum-maltstery in Denver called Our Mutual Friend, whose success foretells the possibilities of developing small, local maltsteries.

Brandon Proff, Andrew Strasburg, and Bryan Leavelle had met each other at various social functions before discovering, as so many people do, that they had one keen hobby in common. “Beer was our mutual friend,” said Proff. They began homebrewing at each other’s houses, and started using grain that Leavelle had floor malted in the basement of his house.

Floor malting is an ambitious project for any homebrewer. Once the grain is soaked and steeped, you rake it across the floor to let the grain rest and germinate for approximately four to five days, keeping strict track of the time, temperature, moisture, and length of the acrospires, or the shoot that sprouts out of the seed. Once enough of the grain has sprouted, the germination process has to be halted and then the grain is dried.

As can be expected, floor malting requires a lot of time, space, and infinite patience. When the trio received word that a space would soon be opening in their Denver neighborhood, they jumped at the chance to realize their dream—and resolved to maintain the freshness and quality of their beer by keeping the floor malting setup.

They bought their grain from Colorado Malting, but the client-customer relationship soon became a partnership as Jason Cody of Colorado Malting learned of, and became interested in, their project. Colorado Malting is now building a larger, proprietary malting setup on Our Mutual Friend’s property, in order for the small maltstery and brewery to continue to brew entirely with Colorado grains grown and malted in-state.

“It makes a huge difference in how the beer tastes,” said Proff. “The more time grain sits after malting and roasting, the more it mellows out. We love and taste the freshness of the grain in our beers,” said Proff. He also points out that Our Mutual Friend has received requests from breweries all over the state to malt millet, sunflower seeds, and other unconventional grains in order to make gluten-free beers.

Being able to produce their own malts has made Our Mutual Friend that much more flexible and creative in their brewing choices. Many small maltsteries hope that brewers will take advantage of that increased flexibility. As Andrea Stanley says, “We’re just giving [brewers] another tool in [their] toolbox.” Proff also expresses a similar hope that more creative craft beer styles will develop, “instead of there being a single standard brewery or way of doing things which all others are judged by.”

In late February, the wet Pacific Northwestern winter was still in full swing. Heavy rain splattered the windshield as Graebner drove out to the experimental barley fields, where the new lines look curiously unimpressive. The stalks were no higher than lawn grass, and I sunk into the mud up to my ankles as I leaned down to take a few pictures.

A few short months later, however, I got an email notifying me about OSU’s Barley Day—an event set to coincide with the barley harvest, so that farmers, scientists, and other interested parties, like myself, can learn more about the aspects of producing and consuming the grain. Their growth spurred on by the warm spring weather, the barley will be waving waist-high, a fitting spectacle for everyone who has traveled so far to see it.

I can’t think of a better way to commemorate the humble grain that has languished so long, so far away from the spotlight. The road to local malting production is still a long one, speckled with potholes, twists, and turns. But with an incredibly diverse assortment of passionate, dedicated people, all coming to walk together in the fields, it seems like barley will soon have its day in the sun.