Here in the lupulin-laden Northwest, hops seem to get all the attention. But there’s also an undeniable appreciation for malt, which is often described as the soul of beer. After all, without malted barley we would have no beer.
There are more than two dozen large, commercial malting companies in the world, and roughly half of them have facilities in (or are based out of) North America, including Rahr, Briess, Cargill and MaltEurop. Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors even have their own malting divisions.
Closer to Bellingham, there’s Gambrinus in British Columbia and GrainCorp (Great Western) in Vancouver, Washington.
Brewers mill (crush) malted barley and other grains before adding them to the mash tun.
Now, regional brewers and distillers are excited about a new, small-batch malting company in Burlington, Washington, which is just 25 miles south of Bellingham and 65 miles north of Seattle. Skagit Valley Malting Co. (SVM) joins nearly two dozen small-batch malt houses currently operating across the United States. Artisan maltster Mike Doehnel of Doehnel Floor Malting in Victoria, B.C., partnered with SVM while continuing to run his own facility.
This “micro” maltster growth is partially in response to the rapidly growing number of craft breweries and distilleries in America; it is partially in response to the increasing demand for locally grown and produced products that better support local businesses and farmers while reducing carbon footprints (aka the “locavore” and sustainability movements); and it is answering the call of some brewers who are trying to obtain unique and/or specific product profiles that the large malting companies are not offering.
Generally speaking, the malting process is the same for small and large malt houses: After the barley is harvested, the kernels are steeped, germinated, and then kilned / roasted. But beyond those steps, maltsters can create an infinite number of final products because there are thousands of barley varieties and roughly 150 different roasts – everything from pale malt to black malt. Maltsters can also manipulate temperature, time, moisture and airflow to achieve an even wider variety of flavors.
AN IDEA GERMINATES
Bob Rock of SVM says that the idea to create a malting company came to fruition after an “over-the-fence” discussion between neighbors Wayne Carpenter, SVM founder and CEO, and Stephen Jones, director and lead grain researcher for the Washington State University Mount Vernon Research Center.
Carpenter had been working with the Port of Skagit County to help them determine ways to keep farming viable in Skagit Valley. Jones’ suggestion was to make commodity crops more financially attractive.
Skagit Valley farmers grow many crops that are big money makers (i.e., flowers, vegetables, potatoes), but rotation crops must be grown every three to five years to break disease cycles and to recondition the soil. Normally, they would grow various commodity grains, which earn very little profit. This made Carpenter and Jones wonder how they could add value to these crops, which led to the idea of having farmers grow specialty grains and then providing the infrastructure to actually malt the grains.
The initial idea was to have the existing malt houses do this for the Valley, but that idea faced some problems. The main one was that existing malt houses are tied into very large batch sizes, and they use only a select few varieties that are all very close in genome and flavor as dictated by the mega breweries. Any variation in cycle times for different varieties of grain would cause a severe disruption to the production processes at these huge malt houses.
“Essentially, we were politely told to take our small batches of different grains and flavors and just go away,” Rock says.
So they took their grains and ideas to Carpenter’s garage, where they built a small prototype malting machine. They began exploring different grain varieties by malting them in 40-pound batches, and then brewing test beers from them. “The feedback we received was tremendously gung ho,” Rock says, “and we realized that we were onto something really worthwhile.”
Soon thereafter, they built a second, much bigger prototype that could handle 400-pound batches. They also leased a building and made Skagit Valley Malting Co. a real entity.
“At first, we were a very small group investing personal money and huge amounts of time and effort,” Rock explains, “but once we realized how big the scope of the project was becoming, we sought and earned additional investors to give us the resources to help make our vision a reality.”
SVM now has a 15,000-pound-per-batch machine.
SVM UNLIKE MOST MALTSTERS
Even though there are dozens of large maltsters producing hundreds of different commercially available malts, plus many craft maltsters producing a variety of malts, SVM is distinctly different in at least two ways.
First, while SVM may be similar to other micro/craft maltsters in that it creates small batches of malt from a variety of grains, it does not malt the grain and then try to sell it. “We call ourselves a ‘custom’ malt house because all of our malt is custom made to a customer’s order,” Rock explains. “Our equipment provides us with the flexibility to malt many different grains even if their malting cycle times vary widely.”
Second, it is in an ideal location. Skagit Valley has some of the best soil on earth for growing barley, and it happens to hold the world record for yields of both barley and wheat. Its microclimate is ideal, and it is matched only by a handful of regions in the world. The USDA even rated Skagit’s soil in the top 2 percent best in the world.
This area’s climate and soil provides cool nights and very long summer days (with few really hot days), a unique saltwater influence, no drought stress and no irrigation requirements. In addition, barley is a great grain to grow to break disease cycles and to return organic matter to fine soils. Its roots grow down as much as the plants grow tall.
Farmers, in turn, like the idea of growing this “off-year” crop because it could pay more than commodity grain prices.
“Our business model from the very beginning was based on everybody in the chain winning.”
SVM has developed essential partnerships at all levels of the product chain, from researching to farming to brewing. The company began with its relationship with WSU, based on Carpenter’s meeting with Jones, and it was a natural fit as the WSU Research Center is located within miles of SVM and it tests grains for the USDA (15,000 barley varieties and 40,000 wheat varieties).
SVM is also working with local farmers and the Port of Skagit County to further develop varieties and the infrastructure needed to make this idea work. Additionally, folks at SVM have met with many craft brewers, distillers, bakers and chefs, all of whom are excited about what SVM is doing.
“Our business model from the very beginning was based on everybody in the chain winning,” Rock says. SVM even participated in WSU’s Grain Gathering, which brought together breeders, researchers, farmers, brewers, distillers and chefs to discuss, investigate and plan for the future. “The level of excitement that people have for this project is unlike anything I have experienced before.”
Most of the grain SVM has malted was grown in Skagit Valley, though it has sourced some grain from other parts of the Salish Coast region – the area west of the Cascade Mountains from Eugene, Oregon in the south to as far north as central Vancouver Island, B.C.
The feedback from brewers has been positive. “Brewers tell us that we have plumper grains, lower protein levels, higher extract and higher brewhouse efficiency,” Rock says. “Plus, they like how we offer different varieties and flavors than they could previously get, and they appreciate that we can custom malt their chosen variety and fine tune the malt specs to the performance (and roast) they want.”
SVM IS POSITIONED TO GROW
“We are not in business to compete for the markets that are already well served by the large malt houses; we want to be the best there is in custom malting,” Rock says. “We have positioned and financed ourselves to be able to grow as needed to meet the demands of our customers as they succeed and grow.”
There are more than 15,000 known varieties of barley in the world today and hundreds can be successfully malted (both six-row and two-row varieties), plus there are other grains such as wheat and rye. SVM hopes to explore well beyond the small number of varieties malted by the large maltsters and tap into some new flavors.
Malt samples from SVM. The grain lower-right is not a dark-roasted malt, it is an Ethiopian variety.
If successful, SVM could provide a multi-win situation for researchers, farmers, brewers/distillers, consumers and the planet. Now that’s a company with a soul.