The Return of the Micro-Maltsters: A Locavore’s Craft Beer Dream

By Anne-Fitten Glenn

What’s old can become new again—from fashion trends to beer recipes to ways of producing the ingredients in those brews. While the return of bellbottom pants doesn’t warm my heart, the return of regional “micro” malt houses does give me a glow—and not just because they equal beer in my belly.

There’s no standard definition for a micro-malt house, though Brent Manning, co-owner of Riverbend Malt House in Asheville, N.C., says the micros he’s familiar with produce less than 100,000 tons of malt annually. Micros also tend to specialize in regionally grown, specialty and artisan grains. A large part of their business consists of providing custom orders for breweries that want to create “grain to glass” beers.

Locavore Brews

A number of breweries and even states are creating their own beers using locally sourced ingredients, including malts. Valley Malt in Hadley, Mass., is malting barley for four regional beers that will be brewed by Peak Organic Brewing Company. Each beer will represent one state—Massachusetts, New York, Maine and Vermont—and will be brewed with hops and barley grown in that state.

Rebel Malting Co. in Reno, Nev., recently malted emmer wheat, an ancient Egyptian grain, for Great Basin Brewing Company’s Nevada Museum of Art 80th Anniversary Egyptian Ale.

And Dogfish Head recently made a splash with their new Delaware Native Ale (DNA). The grains for that brew were milled and malted at Abbott’s Mill House in Milford, Del.

Then there are the annual Estate Ale from Sierra Nevada and the GYO (Grow Your Own) Series from Rogue Ales, both of which incorporate locally grown and malted grains and hops (in fact, Rogue recently purchased a heating unit for grain drying from Rebel Malting).

While drinking local became mainstream a while back, now locally produced beers are hot. These beers complete the circle of growth, production, manufacturing and consumption within a few hundred-mile radius. And micro-maltsters are germinating grains like mad in an attempt to keep up.

The Malting Process

Let’s take it back a step for the non-brewers. Malt is one of the primary ingredients in beer. It’s basically a grain—typically barley, wheat or rye—which has been germinated then dried in a kiln. The process of malting develops the enzymes necessary to develop the grain’s starches into sugars. Malted grains are used to make beer, whiskey, malt vinegar and the malted milk balls that most of us only eat in movie theaters.

In most large malt-production businesses (located primarily in the Western U.S., Canada and the U.K.), this process is mostly automated. At the other end of the spectrum are places like Riverbend and Valley Malt that use the traditional 250-year-old Scottish method of floor malting. Riverbend is currently using this method exclusively. Valley Malt recently added floor malting to their repertoire after the owner/maltsers received a fellowship to study the process in the U.K.

Floor Malting

Here’s how the seven-day floor malting process works. Once the grain has gone through a few wet/dry steep cycles in holding tanks to jumpstart germination, it’s spread on the clean concrete floor of a temperature-controlled room (before central heating, malting took place only during the warmer months). Then the grains must be raked apart as they germinate so they don’t grow together into an unusable mat. The hand-raking must take place about every four hours for three days—until the grains are ready for kilning.

“We practically be sleep on our grain,” Manning said. “We treat every batch like a baby.”

Next, the grains go into the kiln for the drying and roasting parts of the process. Manning and Simpson built their kiln from insulated panels that once lined the walls of a Winn Dixie butcher shop. Different grains take different times and temperatures to develop, but kilning typically takes 30 to 36 hours. Then the malt runs through a de-bearder to remove the roots and polish them. Finally, the grains are cleaned (again) in a seed cleaner and bagged in 50-pound or one-ton bags for distribution. Rebel also sells five and 10-pound bags to home brewers, and Valley sells by the pound.

Who’s Micro-Malting?

Currently, there are only a handful of micro-maltsters in the U.S., but at least three have opened their doors for business in the past year, and more are in the planning stages.

Valley Malt, a husband and wife business started by Andrea and Christian Stanley, has been making malt for about a year. The couple just expanded their malt house and will produce about 75 tons of malt next year, up from 50 tons in 2011.

“The demand has been high from day one,” Andrea Stanley says. “We’re always working at capacity, and we’re always a couple months behind. If you ordered malt from us now, you’d have to wait until January to get it. You can’t speed up the process.”

In Massacusetts, Valley supplies malt to Wormtown Brewery and Cambridge Brewing Co. The Stanleys say their goal is: “to bring back the local malt house.”

After two years of research and study, Manning and Brian Simpson opened the doors to Riverbend Malt in September. The former environmental consultants wondered why none of the barley grown in North Carolina is used to make North Carolina beer (which was the same thing the Stanleys wondered about Massachusetts, according to Andrea Stanley).

In fact, most of the barley grown on the East Coast becomes livestock feed—until now. Now farmers Buddy and Chris Hoffner of Salisbury, N.C., are growing barley and one type of wheat for Riverbend.

The Stanleys also work with regional farmers and even grow some grains themselves. “Part of the appeal of this is the challenge of starting something that very few people are doing now, but more people were doing years ago,” Andrea Stanley says.

Improvements in transportation obviously have made moving multiple tons of grains easier, but not having to transport it makes good environmental sense. It also makes up the price differential to some degree.

“Because the brewers don’t pay for shipping, my malt’s really not that much more expensive than what the big maltsters charge—maybe 4 or 5 cents per pound more,” says Lance Jergensen, owner of Rebel Malting. Like Valley, Jergensen has recently expanded his production facility. He plans to malt 30 tons of grain in the next year.

Jergensen has been at it a while. He started as a brewer for New Belgium Brewing, then opened his own brewery in Los Angeles (Jergensen Brewing Co.). He started malting in 2004 when he couldn’t find organic grains to make his beers. Now he’s a full-time maltster and his grain is grown by farmers growing within a little agricultural band that runs across Northern Nevada. In addition to Great Basin, Jergensen supplies Epic Brewing with malt.

“We can give them grains they can’t often get, such as millet, which is one of our biggest sellers,” he says.

While 30 tons of barley may seem like a lot of grain, Manning put it into perspective for me—each ton of malted grain typically supplies one run of beer through a 30-barrel brewing system. Thus, a brewery with a 50-barrel system uses six to eight tons of grain weekly, he says.

The daddy of micro-malsters is Colorado Malting Co. in Alamosa, who were the first micros to move to larger scale production of malts. The Cody family went from a dairy to growing barley in 1994. They now supply malt to a number of craft breweries, including Breckenridge, New Belgium, Ska, and Wynkoop.

Grainy Terroir

Another part of the appeal of micro-malt houses is that they can produce unique and distinctive-flavored malts that are identifiable to the region in which the grains are grown. Like grapes and hops, grains have terroir. The term refers to the effect the geography of a region, including climate, soil and water has on a particular crop.

“A malt house is kind of like a winery,” Simpson says. “Grapes from each winery are distinct to those soils. It’s the same with grains. Different soils and climates produce different flavors.”

While maltsters now can make malt year-round, the grains still can only be grown during the warm months. The micro-maltsters are working with regional farmers now on grain varieties and amounts of acreage dedicated to next summer’s crops.

“All of the micro-maltsters are really focusing on making things work with what they have in their own backyards. We’re not really trying to hit the narrow specifications of the large, continuous process breweries. Each of us is going at it in a different fashion, but the goal is the same. Hopefully, some really good beer will come from our efforts,” Manning says.

From farmer, to maltser, to brewer and finally to beer drinker—all within a few hundred miles. That’s a cheer-worthy locavore’s dream.

Anne Fitten GlennAnne Fitten Glenn writes regular craft beer and parenting columns for Mountain Xpress newsweekly in Asheville, N.C. She’s noticed that the two topics often overlap. She’s also a mom, journalist, photographer, and homebrewer. You can find her writing on Facebook, Twitter and WordPress under the name “Brewgasm.”