Why Craft Beer Is Turning to Craft Malt

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You love your hops, but whether you’re a brewer or craft beer aficionado, ask yourself this: When was the last time you thought about the malt in your beer?

Probably never, but it’s time to give malt the respect it deserves. With the number of craft maltsters increasing in this country — there are currently 67 members in the North American Craft Maltsters Guild — malt may finally be getting its day.

That’s something Phil Neumann, CEO and co-founder of Mainstem Malt (with his wife Alyssa Martinez Neumann) in Walla Walla, Wash., has been predicting since 2016. “The focus remains on hops, and breweries aren’t paying enough attention to malt,” he says. “But I believe that’s changing rapidly, and 2021 is the year for craft malt.”

Whether his prediction is accurate remains to be seen, but what is clear is that there are numerous advantages for breweries to choose craft maltsters over what’s often referred to as big malt. Chief among them? Sustainability.

“Craft malt at its core is about relocalizing supply chains and getting people to rethink where malt comes from,” says Jesse Bussard, executive director of the North American Craft Maltsters Guild, adding that the impact on local economies is huge. The Guild defines a craft maltster as small (production is between five and 10,000 metric tons per year), local (over 50 percent of grains are sourced from fields within a 500-mile radius) and independent. “It’s about reconnecting craft beverages to the place and land that produces the ingredients and helping push innovation and spur creativity among brewers.”

Partnering Up for the Earth

Breweries are keenly aware of the dire warnings about the future of this planet, many initiating measures to make their beer more environmentally friendly. Cue craft maltsters who are helping breweries increase the sustainability of every pint they make.

Take, for instance, Maintstem which started as a way to help put water back into streams too dry to support salmon. Yet Mainstem also needed a more comprehensive framework for assessing agricultural practices than it could provide, and a non-profit called Salmon-Safe with its focus on wild salmon was already doing that.

Instead, Mainstem, the first maltster to achieve Certified B Corps status, pivoted and now works with growers who are Salmon-Safe certified, meaning that they’re taking into account things like erosion control and habitat enhancement on salmon-bearing waterways. Mainstem also helps its growers implement other sustainable farming practices. “We envision having organic and regenerative organic lines to support this kind of movement, something that will become possible as brewers, distillers and consumers are willing to pay more for their malt,” Neumann says.

Meanwhile, in Durham, N.C., Epiphany Craft Malt is so keyed in on the brewing industry’s impact on the climate that’s it’s committed to lowering its carbon footprint via regional farming connected credits through Indigo Ag. “Almost 70 percent of our footprint is in the farming practices,” says Sebastian Wolfrum, founder and director of malting and roasting operations.

Through Indigo, Epiphany incentivizes its farmers to practice sustainable growing — for instance, its partner farmers are using an alternative version of nitrogen fertilizer — and get paid through credits that Epiphany receives. As a result, Epiphany was able to achieve a carbon neutral designation in 2020, mitigating 105 percent of its carbon footprint and pulling 421 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere (about a pound of CO2 per pound of finished malt). That caught the attention of Dogfish Head, which used Epiphany’s malt to brew a carbon neutral beer called Re-Gen-Ale.

Carbon emissions is just one of the metrics that Epiphany tracks, something it’s outlined in its Three-Year Climate Resilience Plan. Other metrics include electricity and water use and waste, all of which translates to a lower carbon footprint.

Less impact on the earth, in fact, was what encouraged Carol Cochran, co-founder of Horse & Dragon Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, Colo., to start working with local craft maltsters. “Between transport and growing techniques, we feel confident that for every pound of malt we use that’s grown and malted in northern Colorado, we’re putting fewer greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere when making our beer,” she says.

The farmers supplying the two local malthouses Horse & Dragon uses the most are also forward-thinking in their approaches to land prep, crop rotation, fertilizing and watering, Cochran says. That crop rotation, by the way, is key for the earth. “Crop rotation is a foundational principle of farming that’s important for soil health and disease and pest management,” Bussard says.

For Big aLICe Brewing in Long Island City and Queens, N.Y., sustainability has been a primary focus, one reason it’s been using craft malt since 2013. “The identity and mission of our brewery has been about sustainability and doing what’s right, even if it comes at the expense of profitability,” says Jon Kielty, head brewer and production manager at Big aLICe. “Using locally sourced and sustainably grown grains is just one area where we work toward this.”

In fact, since 2013, Big aLICe has always used at least 20 percent New York grown and malted grains in all of its beers. Last year, that number increased to 32 percent, and with the brewery’s expansion to Finger Lakes, N.Y., Kielty anticipates that to be significantly higher this year. Six beers in its line-up use 100 percent grains from New York.

What Craft Malt Does for Beer That Big Malt Won’t

As important as sustainability is, it’s only one reason driving breweries to choose craft malt. Taste is also crucial, especially given that malt is often called the soul of beer. “It provides all of the sugars and most of the flavor,” Neumann says. “While hops are awesome, malt will always be a more important ingredient, and pretty much everything that has excited consumers about hops can be matched, if not exceeded, by craft maltsters.” There are even signs that barley will experience the kind of directional breeding that will result in accentuated flavor profiles, what Neumann calls the “party trick” that earned hops their current place in the market.

The craft malts Horse & Dragon is using, for instance, absorb what Cochran calls the Northern Colorado goodness. “They’re responding to our water and soil in a way that’s unique to right here, and we love imbuing that in the beer we make,” she says.

Kielty echoes that sentiment, saying that there’s a terroir in some of the local grains he works with. “That helps contribute some unique character to some of our beers, including our 100 percent NY Pilsner,” he says.

That taste is further influenced by the freshness of the malt, which increases its aromas, another unique aspect of craft malt. “Within a month of malting the barley, there are subtle aromas that will disappear if you get the malt eight to12 months later, which is often what happens with big malt,” Wolfrum says. “Because we roast our malts, there’s a night and day difference when you open a bag of our malt versus one that’s traveled for months and over a long distance.”

That’s one characteristic Reed Odeneal, co-founder and director of brewing of Perfect Plain in Pensacola, Fla., has found with the craft malt he uses. “While big malt might focus on consistency, craft malt gives you nuances you can’t get in big malt,” he says. Perfect Plain is in on track to source 50 to 75 percent of its malt from craft maltsters this year. “You have so much more variety with craft malt.”

Plus, because breweries have a relationship with maltsters and can connect directly with the farmers, brewers can take control of their beer in a way they can’t with big malt. “Craft malt offers a closer relationship with your maltster,” Bussard says. “You can work directly with the person creating your malt to customize and create your own.” Odeneal, for instance, was involved in the entire malting process from germination to kilning when a malthouse created malts exclusive to Perfect Plain that were then turned a special release of five beers.

Of course, all of this adds up to a bigger cost for craft malt versus big malt. But it winds up being only about a nickel extra per pint, Bussard says, quoting a “maltifesto” written by the co-owner of an Indiana malthouse who suggests raising pint prices from, say, $5 to $5.25 or $5.50 and explaining how this will help the local economy.

Encouraging Breweries to Form “Maltmanships”

In the end, craft malt translates into a better product for craft beer lovers – and a unique way to leverage the beer. In a similar fashion as the Brewers Association’s Independent Craft Brewer Seal, the North American Craft Maltsters Guild offers a Certified Craft Malt Seal program either for the brewery itself if it uses at least 10 percent craft malt every year or a single beer if it’s produced with at least 10 percent craft malt.

The program, which launched in 2019, requires registration and a small fee; after which, breweries can display the logo and seal, even receive wood certification plaque for their taproom. There are currently 120 brewery members, a number Bussard hopes increases.

One of the unspoken benefits of this certification? “It offers an amazing marketing opportunity for a brewery to tell a story about their beer,” Odeneal says. The certification always sparks conversations among Perfect Plain’s guests.

The future of craft malt indeed looks bright, but getting brewers to rethink their malt will still require work. “Brewers need to think about malt as you would a wine grape or coffee beans,” Bussard says. Malt, after all, isn’t just malt, something perhaps you’ll think about next time you sip a craft beer.

Karen Asp is an Indiana-based journalist and author who writes for numerous publications, including Better Homes & Gardens, Real Simple, USA Today’s magazines, Forks Over Knives, TheBeet.com, Eating Well and Oxygen. She counts craft beer, especially IPAs, among her top passions (along with fitness, vegan cooking and animals) and seeks out breweries wherever she travels, beer being her favorite souvenir to bring home.

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