Malthouse Rising: ‘Local’ Beer Is Finally Coming Home

Small malt producers are giving brewers an alternative to the mass-produced ingredients they have long relied on.

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Jun 29, 2015· 5 MIN READ
Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food, and travel journalist who regularly writes for Bon Appétit, Men’s Journal, New York, Details, Wine Enthusiast and Imbibe.

Back in 2011, Ted Hawley was a fourth-generation farmer in Batavia, New York, whose family had been raising cattle, chickens, pigs, and lamb on their land since 1909. Hawley had a hankering to grow organic grain, though, so he attended the Northeast Organic Farming Association conference looking for ideas and networking opportunities. Could grain bring his family’s farmstead through the 21st century the way quality meats had led them into it?

During the “Farm to Bakery” session, a single sentence stuck in his brain. Hawley recalled panelist Glenda Neff, a senior field adviser with the American Farmland Trust, telling the audience, “If there are any entrepreneurs out there, there is a need for malting grains for the brewing industry.” At the time, there were just a handful of small malthouses in the country.

Hawley is a farmer with the spirit of a serial entrepreneur—a master diesel mechanic who has turned a chicken coop into a self-storage operation, dabbled in document shredding, and run a health food store. “I couldn’t leave that comment alone,” he said.

It was the start of a three-year odyssey of education and infrastructure building that, last year, became New York Craft Malt. The family’s barn was transformed into a malthouse where Hawley sprouts and dries locally grown barley—most of it farmed within a 10-mile radius—to turn the grain into malt, the foundation of beer.

Ted Hawley. (Photo: Courtesy Ted Hawley)

The first step in brewing beer is to steep grains in hot water, unlocking sugars that yeast eventually converts into alcohol. Though there is resurgent interest in hop farming at the moment, of beer’s four main ingredients (water, yeast, hops, grain), malt starts everything. But despite the boom in craft beer, with brewers from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, touting their products as home-styled ale and lager made by your neighbors, beer’s key ingredient has remained a commodity game: Malt is mainly produced by a handful of companies, including Malteurop, which controls 25 percent of the U.S. market, and Cargill, with 19 percent. And in 2012, the U.S. imported some 300,000 tons of malt from Canada, one of the world’s top barley-producing countries.

(Photo: Courtesy Blacklands Malt)

In other words, ever since the birth of the craft-beer revolution in the late 1970s, the vast majority of the brews’ primary ingredient has been coming from the monoculture grain fields of the upper Midwest and beyond. Most consumers—even the organic-grocery buying, farm-to-table restaurant dining crowd—likely don’t realize that brewers’ selection is so limited, standardized, and industrialized. When it comes to most “local” beers, the only ingredient that comes from near the brewery is the water.

That’s changing because of a groundswell of maltsters like Hawley who are partnering with small farmers to create malt that’s fiercely local and flavorful, imparting terroir you can taste by the pint. The Craft Maltsters Guild counts 23 members across Canada and the United States, from Massachusetts’ Valley Malt to Michigan’s Pilot House Malt, Colorado Malting, and Oregon’s Rogue, which grows and malts the grain used in its Rogue Farms beers.

Brandon Ade of Blacklands Malt. (Photo: Courtesy Blacklands Malt)

Down in Leander, Texas, just north of Austin, Brandon Ade had an epiphany while homebrewing in early 2012. “I realized that none of the malt I was brewing with came from Texas,” said Ade, an engineer. He turned his brain flash into Blacklands Malt, which sold its first batch the following fall. Blacklands’ unique product line, including malts smoked with mesquite and birch, has attracted steady customers, including Austin’s Jester King and Fort Worth’s Chimera Brewing.

Starting the business meant rebooting the supply chain. In the late 1980s, Texas barley basically disappeared and was replaced by wheat. Today’s barley harvest, Ade said, “is such a small quantity that the department of agriculture doesn’t keep any statistics where it’s planted.” To find out which barley varieties grow best in Texas, he turned to Texas A&M, which helped conduct a series of field tests. The first year, researchers planted 32 varieties, followed by 800 the following year. “Barley is the lifeblood of my business, so the data and research were very important,” said Ade, who notes that a spring variety planted during the fall thrives during Texas’ mild winters.

While planting the right crop is one hurdle, getting growers on board is equally challenging. “It’s tough to find farmers to grow a new crop that’s unproven,” Ade said. Most want to start small, but “to do 10, 20, 30 acres here and there is not very appealing. They have to cut out a slice of their land and farm it differently.”

But the risks can be rewarding: “I’m paying them almost four times the value that it would be for feed,” said New York Craft Malt’s Hawley. “It’s good for their crop rotation and the bottom line. It’s creating a premium for their product,” not to mention building a direct pipeline to brewers.

Asheville, North Carolina’s Riverbend Malt House works with little guys like Haw River Farmhouse Ales and craft behemoths including Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, which collaborated with the malthouse on RyePA. The IPA contained a rye variety known as Wrens Abruzzi that’s been grown in the South since the Civil War.

Historically, “the rye was essentially just a winter crop,” planted after a farm’s moneymaking crop had been harvested, said cofounder Brian Simpson. “Farmers would use it for a cover crop or for feed.” That type of growing system could easily be reintroduced to modern farms in the South and elsewhere, as growing rye for malt can be done without “really interfering with their other growing schedules.” It has an upside for the rest of the crops grown on the farm too: Not only does it provide a new value-added product for the farmer, but with their deep roots, both rye and barley help reduce erosion and improve soil quality.

The diverse flavors offered by these small outfits and the heirloom varieties they process are a boon for brewers, but the renewed interest in malt grains presents other upsides for farmers too. Barley, one of the world’s oldest crops, has been passed over for corn in cooler climates where the grain has traditionally been grown. In 2013, just 3 million acres of barley was harvested in the U.S., with much of it going to feed livestock; Iowa alone harvested more than 13 million acres of corn that year. But the craft-beer movement is giving the hearty grain, which can grow in drought and near-freezing temperatures alike, a chance at a revival.

Since the release of RyePA, Riverbend has established a steady relationship with three or four farmers who also supply hard wheat and heritage barley. Additionally, brewers have begun enlisting Simpson to malt specific strains of grain. “They’re working with special farmers to grow the grain, which we’ll malt,” said Simpson, noting that Louisville’s Goodwood Brewing enlists Riverbend to malt Kentucky-grown barley.

Good pay for farmers. New flavors for brewers. Malting grains are a win-win for everyone, right? Not so fast. Due to the economies of scale, small-batch malt costs more money, which gives many breweries pause. “Brewers love the philosophy of what I’m doing, but they don’t want to pay for it,” Ade said. Then there’s Mother Nature: “In the past three years, we’ve had one good crop,” said Hawley.

While convincing both farmers and brewers that craft malt is viable, both economically and agriculturally, is a struggle, Hawley is up to the task. “Hops have got everybody’s attention, but malt is the workhorse,” he said. “You can’t make beer without it.”

Given those challenges, shifting the craft-brew industry from a business model that supports industrial agriculture to one that values smallholder farms, local sourcing, and variety is going to take some time. Hawley and the other farmers driving such a change are ready—but they will be helped if drinkers demand it.

“It’s the consumer that has to want the local product,” Hawley said. “The locavore challenge is up for brewing.”