Skagit Valley Malting is leading the malting revolution

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles on Skagit Valley Malting. We’ll be looking at SVM’s impact on craft brewing, their importance to our region and the impact they can have on the malting industry.
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There are now more than 5,300 breweries in America, and thousands more are in planning. While I still believe there’s room for many more, the market is becoming increasingly saturated and competition for tap handles and store shelves continues to heat up. Now more than ever, breweries need to differentiate themselves by producing innovative and distinctive beers. Some brewers are experimenting with new hop varieties and hopping techniques; some are pushing the envelope on traditional styles; and some are even brewing with odd ingredients in an effort to stand out. But none of these endeavors is successful without a good malt base – often called the “soul” of beer.

Now, regional breweries have a new tool in their quests for distinction. Just 30 minutes south of Bellingham, Skagit Valley Malting (SVM) is quickly earning a reputation as one of the world’s premier malting companies. I recently toured the Burlington, WA facility, and it has come a long way since I first wrote about it a couple years back.

“We bring differentiation, which is what brewers are attempting to achieve in this crowded market,” says Adam Foy, sales and business development manager for SVM. “We’re creating a product that’s similar to or better than the finest malts available, including European-style malts.”

SVM is unlike most malting companies, both big and small, including “craft” / “micro” / “boutique” maltsters, which have been popping up across the country in recent times. Think of SVM more like a “custom” or “precision” maltster.

Many of the craft malting companies are tied to single farms, so they’re limited by the number of grain varietals they can malt. SVM, on the other hand, works with many farmers and it malts a wide variety of grains to a broad range of tight specifications (from pilsner malt to dark caramel malts, and everything in between), and it doesn’t have to blend varieties or batches to meet a specification. Its process provides unparalleled uniformity throughout each batch, and from one batch to the next. “We have repeatability and consistency, so we don’t need to just focus on one-offs,” SVM CEO Dave Green says.

On the other end of the spectrum are large malting companies, which often blend to perfection. “SVM is the opposite. We malt to perfection,” Green explains. “Big maltsters make the grain fit their process. We bend the process around the grain. We take advantage of what grows well locally, and we build the process to fit the grain best.”

Skagit Valley’s moderate marine climate, high latitude (i.e., long summer days with cool nights) and dry harvest period, coupled with its fertile alluvial soil, which was rated in the top 2% of the world by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), make it ideal for growing barley. Although it doesn’t fetch as high of a price as other cash crops (i.e., tulips), barley grown for brewing, distilling, and flour milling makes for a perfect rotational crop, and it garners much more money than feed barley. “The commodity business is a race to the bottom,” Green says. “We offer a benefit to farmers, we try to make a profit, and we offer brewers, distillers, and bakers a superior product. It’s a triple win.”

SVM opened 6 years ago, though its early years were mostly focused on research and development, as well as building relationships with breeders, researchers, farmers, brewers, distillers, and bakers. It is now in full production mode with loads of capacity and growth potential.

SVM’s state-of-the-art facility features three (with many more to come) single-drum machines that were designed, engineered, and built by SVM. No one else in the world has the same machines. “We couldn’t have done this 12 to 15 years ago,” Foy says. “The wireless technology, software and control systems give us precision monitoring capabilities.”

The patented rotary drum vessel features a novel airflow design and an adjustable, rotating bed that provides heightened uniformity in the malt by exposing each kernel to the same environment during all five phases of malting – washing, steeping, germinating, kilning, and polishing. This results in unprecedented consistency and uniformity in color and modification development throughout each batch, and from one batch to the next.

Most malthouses, especially the smaller ones, can only do one or a few of the malting steps at a time. Transferring grains from one piece of equipment to another can cause aerobic stress, which increases the likelihood of inconsistencies. Additionally, hands-on methods, such as floor malting, lack precision and can result in more variability and less uniformity within batches.

SVM also has the capability to grow with breweries. It can sell anything from a few 50-pound sacks to 3,000-pound “super sacks,” or it can deliver a truck to fill up a brewery’s grain silo. SVM’s pilot system produces 450-pound batches and its full-production machines can do 9-ton batches. “We’re growing rapidly,” Green says. “We have the capacity and capability to work with small and large breweries, and we could do that with 60 breweries.”

Brewers can even work with SVM to pick out a distinct grain varietal and then malt it for peak flavor and brewhouse performance. In other words, brewers can create their very own signature base malt, a unique smoked malt, a unique specialty malt (i.e., Vienna, Light and Dark Munich, Caramel malts 5-120, and more), or a high-kilned malt from one of SVM’s Exploratory or Exotic varieties. SVM has already malted a whopping 27 different varieties of barley, but there are 32,000 different varieties in the world. And that doesn’t even include wheat and other cereal grains that can be malted, such as oats, corn, rye, buckwheat, and more. The flavor possibilities are endless.

For brewers looking to make beers with as many local ingredients as possible, you can’t get much more local than brewing with locally grown and malted grains. SVM sources nearly all of its barley from Skagit Valley, and it receives its grain directly from the fields at harvest. Plus, it provides cleaning, grading, drying, and barley analysis as part of its partnership with local growers. And SVM even owns some massive warehouses and multiple, humidity-controlled silos, which are used for grain segregation and storage.

Each of SVM’s Exploratory varieties is new to the U.S. market and represents years of research and development. SVM works with breeders, international seed companies, and local farmers to select the most promising grain varietals and to ensure that they are agronomically stable to be grown in the Skagit Valley. Of course, the grains also must malt really well, and they must bring something interesting to the end user.

In addition to working with its grower and brewer partners, SVM also works with many other organizations, including the Skagit Port Authority, WSU Extension and Bread Lab, Watershed Mill, local restaurants and bakers, Skagit Valley College, Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, nearby seed companies, and more.

Sustainable systems with such complexity are not always the easiest or least expensive systems, but they’re the best systems – agronomically, economically, and environmentally speaking. “We’re creating a local product that’s similar or better than the finest malts available, with a cost that’s within 10% – plus or minus – of those high-quality imports,” Green says.

SVM’s premium malt comes with high value. “It’s totally worth it,” says Mike Armstrong, head brewer and co-owner of Farmstrong Brewing in Mount Vernon, WA, who says Farmstrong was able to cut some grain out of their recipes because of the better yield from SVM malt. Other local brewers have also reported up to a 10% better efficiency after using SVM malt. The plump, low-protein kernels combined with SVM’s malting processes (which results in less dead kernels and dust) translates to better yield.

“Cost isn’t everything,” Armstrong adds. “I use SVM malt because it’s a great story, it’s a local product, and it’s great malt.”

Most of Bellingham’s breweries have brewed beers with SVM malt, and SVM has even produced some organic malt for Aslan Brewing. Recently, Boundary Bay Brewing released its Citraweisse in cans, which is made with 100% SVM malt.

Increasingly, brewers are realizing the importance of barley varieties, where they are grown, and how they are malted. This is a big shift from brewers only thinking about how malt affects a finished beer solely by how it’s processed in the mash.

The future of flavor just might come from new barley varieties and malting processes, and SVM is at the forefront of that research, innovation, and technology.

Learn more at www.skagitvalleymalting.com.

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Aubrey Laurence
Aubrey has been a craft beer fanatic since the mid '90s and he has written about beer for a wide variety of publications in Washington, Oregon, and Colorado for well over a decade. He has judged beer in multiple competitions, plus he has rated and taken notes on thousands of beers from all 50 states and 68 countries -- visiting 16 of those countries on 6 continents. He is also a Certified Beer Server with the Cicerone Certification Program, an avid homebrewer, and a hop grower. In 2013 & 2014, he spearheaded Bellingham Beer Week. When he’s not drinking beer, he’s probably climbing a mountain somewhere. He lives in Bellingham with his wife and three cats. Follow him on twitter @AubreyLaurence.

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