Our long national obsession with hops is coming to a close. We’ve explored every Columbus, we’ve been showered in every Cascade, we’ve mash hopped, boil hopped, and dry hopped, and blasted our palates with bitterness. Now, trends are focusing more on beer’s opposite number. It feels as if malt is the new hops.
Brewers are growing more particular about their barley, as well as other malted and unmalted grains such as rye, wheat, and oats. And as well they should. Besides providing the sugars that become alcohol, malts and grains provide a full range of flavors in beer––from light cracker, toast, and biscuit to coffee, chocolate, dark fruits and brown sugar. Malt is what gives a beer color, richness, and complexity.
Being such a key ingredient for the nation’s 5,000 craft breweries, it may surprise drinkers to know that nearly all domestically malted barley comes just from a few companies including Rahr, Briess, Cargill, and Great Western. But in recent years, a crop of small craft maltsters has grown to give brewers a different option.
The story of craft malting (sometimes called micro-malting or artisan malting) is similar in timeline and trajectory to that of the craft brewing industry. “Five years ago, there were probably less than 10 craft malthouses in production in the U.S.,” says Aaron MacLeod, director of the Hartwick College Center for Craft Food and Beverage. The center provides quality control testing of barley and malt for many craft maltsters. “Today,” he says, “there are nearly 100, with more in planning and production. Increasingly, there is interest in locally produced products. Consumers are keen to know where their food and drink comes from. Craft malt fills the production gap for locally produced brewing materials in many states.”
Although the number of micro-malting companies is increasing, craft malt is still a tiny fraction of overall malt production; MacLeod estimates it represents less than one percent of the total 2 million tons of malt produced annually in North America. However, what craft maltsters lack in volume, they make up for with other benefits.
Craft malting companies in the U.S. pride themselves on sourcing as much raw barley as possible from local farms, offering more specific malt options by way of smaller batch sizes, and working one-on-one with small farms and breweries. All of this, explains MacLeod, helps promote a larger “farm-to-glass” story that craft maltsters are working to help small brewers share with their beer loving audience. Their malt is made from barley that a brewer can often trace back to its exact farm, field, and harvest date.
Tom Hill, head brewer at Bemidji Brewing, says the freshness of craft malt is part of what attracts him to using it. Hill used malt from Minnesota-based Vertical Malt in several beers including a pale ale and an oatmeal brown ale, which he says drank like a liquid oatmeal raisin cookie with the chocolate malt providing a background note of toasted marshmallow.
“These malts were fresh,” he says, “very fresh in the case of the chocolate and caramel malts for the oatmeal brown. This freshness factor is a point of emphasis for craft maltsters, especially in the case of specialty malts that bring a large spectrum of flavors and aromas to the party. It’s an option that really doesn’t exist from the larger supplier.”
It’s surprising that in a region well-known for growing high-quality malting barley, Minnesota and its neighboring states have only recently seen the founding of its first craft malthouses: Two Track Malting Company in North Dakota and Vertical Malt in Minnesota.
Two Track Malting Company was formed in 2015 when brothers Jared and Donovan Stober partnered with maltster Chris Fries after being introduced by a professor at North Dakota State University. Barley is grown on the Stober farm, a sixth-generation family farm in Goodrich, and malted at Two Track’s facility, in Lincoln, North Dakota, just south of Bismarck.
Fries’ interest in malting began as a homebrewer hoping to create beer brewed with 100-percent North Dakota ingredients. He grew his own hops and harvested his own yeast––why not make his malt? He got a bucket of locally grown barley and taught himself the processes of malting at home. He later joined and took malting classes through the Craft Maltsters Guild, which provides education and technical resources on malting science and practice to small malting companies.
For Two Track’s first two years, Fries produced malt on the small scale of 5 tons per week, but a recent expansion now pushes capacity up to 15 tons weekly. This will help supply more malt to their current brewery customers in 23 states, and move more breweries off their waiting list and onto their delivery roster.
Vertical Malt in Fisher, Minnesota, is run by father/farmer Tim Wagner and son/maltster Adam Wagner. Their family has farmed in the Red River Valley since the late 1800s with one of its longtime crops being barley. Like Chris Fries, the Wagners also wanted to grow their own barley and malt it for homebrewing. Using homemade equipment, they succeeded, and their resulting plans for a craft malt house won them $10,000 in the Northwest Minnesota Foundation’s IDEA Competition in 2015. They malted on a pilot facility throughout 2016 and debuted a full-scale production system in early 2017. Another expansion in capacity should be in place by the end of this year.
Vertical Malt currently produces malted barley in 2-ton batches. Similar to what you find in craft malthouses across the country, much of the company’s production equipment was designed and built in-house, which is to say that there is a lot of homespun engineering innovation at work here.
Raw barley is harvested, malted at Vertical Malt, and delivered to breweries like Revelation Ale Works in Hallock, Minnesota // Photos courtesy of Vertical Malt
Vertical uses decked drum-style vessels, where malt is periodically rotated as it germinates, and then is heated and dried during the kilning process. “The drum design works great for our small batches,” said Adam Wagner. “It allows us to have a lot of flexibility to customize batches and try new things without putting excessive amounts of raw materials at risk.”
Two Track, on the other hand, uses a Germination Kiln Vessel (GKV) for germination and kilning, a machine similar to those in larger malt houses. The GKV has a turning system to agitate the grain during germination and a slotted, perforated floor to allow air to flow through the grain bed. During kilning, the temperature is raised to reach the desired malting recipe.
Because of their smaller scale, craft maltsters can experiment with different grains, including niche and heritage varieties.
“If you can name the grain—wheat, rye, triticale, oats, corn, millet—I guarantee there is someone malting it,” says MacLeod. “Think of all the possible combinations. Caramel wheat malt or roasted oat malt.” Craft maltsters are also free to explore historic and traditional processes, such as the more manually intensive work of floor malting, typically performed on a large scale only in Europe.
But to make a quality malt, craft maltsters need to start with high quality barley. Due to the cost of building an in-house lab, most craft maltsters don’t have analytic equipment or trained staff onsite to ensure the grains meet industry specifications. Most of them rely on the aforementioned Hartwick College Center for Craft Food and Beverage, a first of its kind operation providing affordable and reliable quality testing for raw grains and finished malts. Two Track Malting and Vertical Malt are among the many craft maltsters working directly with the center for analysis of their raw barley and finished malt.
MacLeod explains all maltsters have to deal with the same primary challenge: a variable raw material whose grain quality changes from year-to-year and location-to-location based on the environment. However, he says, craft malt creates several competitive advantages including sustainability, freshness, traceability, and connecting craft with craft. He adds craft malt benefits not only the maltster and brewer, but the farmer. “Growing grain for malting is also a value-added option for smaller farms,” he says, “as it commands a higher price than other small grains and commodity crops. This can help keep small farms alive and redevelop the rural economies—which are struggling—in many areas of the country.”
Besides the local aspect of offering a beer that more completely comes from “right here,” Bemidji Brewing’s Tom Hill says the important thing is the ability to know the entire life cycle of the product. “To be able to talk to the farmers that grew the barley, share a beer with the maltster, ask questions, offer feedback face-to-face, and build that working relationship has been an enlightening process. Hopefully, by making that feedback loop shorter and quicker, we can both benefit.”