With every decision Aslan Brewing’s owners make, they ask themselves: Does this support our principles? And as you may know, one of their core principles is producing 100% organic beer, which is a challenging and expensive way to make beer. Raw ingredients are limited and difficult to source, additives that help in the brewing process (such as lactic acid to adjust pH) are often restricted or unavailable in the organic form, and organic options typically cost more than conventional ingredients.
“Brewing 100% organic beer isn’t the easiest path, and it can be extremely frustrating at times,” says Frank Trosset, Aslan Brewing’s head brewer and co-owner. “We’re sticking with it, though, because it aligns with our principles and it is something we truly believe in.”
Most people don’t realize that beer is actually an agricultural product, but Trosset is well aware of the connection, and how agriculture directly intersects with sustainability and the environment. He acknowledges that mass-production techniques and efficiencies in conventional farming are needed to feed the growing population of the world. But at the same time, he worries that some of the methods they employ could be detrimental to our health. “We want to provide a traditional farming alternative,” he says. “It’s our way of supporting something we feel strongly about.”
Aslan currently sources most of its ingredients from within the state, but it continually strives to do better. “In order for us to have a full catalog of organic malt, we have had to spread our net into Europe,” Trosset explains. “The downside is that while we’re trying to promote environmentally friendly farming practices, the increased carbon footprint of shipping malt from Europe goes against our effort to source as many local ingredients as possible.”
To help them get to where they want to be, Trosset and Lamb have been communicating with Skagit Valley Malting (SVM), out of Burlington, WA, a local custom/precision maltster, for a number of years. They are also working with Hedlin Farms, a third- and fourth-generation Skagit Valley farm run by Dave Hedlin and his wife Serena Campbell since 1974, which is growing the organic barley for Aslan Brewing. “We’re finally getting to a point where things are coming together,” Trosset says. “We’re really excited because this will allow us to support organic, reduce our carbon footprint, and support two local businesses, which will help to keep the money in our community.”
Jack Lamb, Aslan Brewing’s CEO and co-owner, says that new relationships with local farmers and SVM are key to achieving their sustainable goals. “If we are able to eventually get all our malt both grown and malted in Skagit Valley, we will take a huge leap forward in sustainability. Our carbon footprint will dramatically decrease, the local economy will be stimulated, and more community connections will be made.”
It’s an exciting culmination, but developing this farmer-maltster-brewer supply chain has taken a lot of time to get everything in sync, and it will continue to take some work. Aslan must forecast how much malt it thinks it will need over the course of a year, the farmer must accurately plan how much barley to grow, and SVM must plan for how much grain it will need to store and malt.
All this coordination is worth the effort, though, as it’s a win for everyone, including the farmer. Every 3 to 5 years, Hedlin must grow a rotational grain crop, which essentially “resets” the land for future crops by reducing soil erosion, increasing soil fertility and crop yield, and providing the soil with various nutrients. Hedlin jokes with his wife that, historically, they’d grow grain for fun and occasionally for profit. “When you sell commodity grains (e.g., feed barley), you’re trying to cut costs, so you’re racing to the bottom,” Hedlin says. “This [new partnership with SVM and Aslan] turns that around, and it does something remarkable by racing to the top.”
It’s not a slam dunk, though. Even though the fertile alluvial soil of Skagit Valley is ideal for growing grain, land costs in this area are much higher than other regions. On top of that, organic grain is relatively hard to grow. “It’s difficult because it stays in the ground for a long time – especially winter wheat, which is planted in August,” Hedlin explains. “We need to work hard to keep the ground clean (i.e., keeping it weed free without the use of chemicals).”
Initially, Hedlin Farms will be growing the Copeland variety of barley and SVM will then malt it to a variety of specs, including pilsner, Vienna, Munich, and acidulated malts. In the future, Aslan hopes to expand that lineup to organic wheat, rye, and possibly oats and buckwheat. It also hopes to experiment with other organic varieties on SVM’s pilot system. But for now, the brewery is focused on the proven and vetted Copeland grain because Hedlin knows how it grows in our climate, SVM knows how to accurately malt it, and local breweries who have used it know how it performs.
While Aslan plans to incorporate this new malt into a variety of beers, its organic Classic Lager will be its initial beer made with 100% locally grown and malted barley. “It’s a malt-driven, single-malt beer, so you will really get to experience the flavor of the malt,” Trosset says. “It will also showcase an element of terroir from this region, which we’re excited to share.”
Beyond its flavor, that terroir will represent an unparalleled synergism. “Working with everyone – including researchers at WSU Extension and the Bread Lab, and innovators like Skagit Valley Malting, Watershed Mill, and Aslan – has been incredibly exciting,” Hedlin says. “It’s a privilege to farm here, and it’s an honor to be a part of it all.”
(All photography by Sawaya Photography)