Malted grains make up nearly 100% of the dry goods used in beer production, yet they fall short to every other possible aspect of a beer when presented to the consumer. The hops used, adjunct flavors, story of the label, or brewer inspiration typifies the context given to a beer, but the quality of malt and its earthly origins are rarely considered or questioned by the consumer.
Trending craft maltsters are seeking to carve their space with high quality malt accompanied by a story of place. An example of this trend is Mainstem Malt, a craft malting operation in Walla Walla, Washington. Mainstem’s owner and operator, Phil Neumann, specializes in transforming locally grown raw grain products into malted grains for use in brewing, distilling, and food production.
His role as maltster is precarious in that he does not grow the grain, and does not produce the final products that end consumers will ultimately judge. But has a lot to manage. The craft maltster’s supply chain begins with establishing relationships with farmers to ensure individual lots of malting quality barley or wheat are planted and will be properly grown.
Full Pint barley developed by Oregon State University is a well known example of a Northwest barley strain developed specifically for malting, however as craft maltsters seek to diversify product offerings and flavors, convincing growers to experiment with an array of malting barley strains becomes paramount. Neumann cites his greatest success to date has been on the grower front; working with progressively-minded farmers who share his vision of maintaining prime farming land for future generations of humans while ensuring environmental health for all species.
Mainstem Malt is an engine for responsible agricultural land usage and social responsibility. Certified Salmon-Safe and a pending B-Corp certification are important checkpoints for Neumann’s operation. By aligning his malt supply chain with growers concerned about responsible water usage, runoff management and land sustainability, Mainstem Malt further establishes its environmental credentials.
Growers and brewers alike have thin margins in competitive marketplaces, and Mainstem is working to streamline and innovate the relationships between growers, brewers, and consumers in the Pacific Northwest.
Phil’s workday is dominated by his pursuit of market penetration. How can he overcome brewer habits and malt product loyalty long steeped in established successful recipes?
Differences in malt flavors are admittedly subtle, especially considering American craft beer loyalists’ preferences for high-tone flavors, whether that is hop, barrel, or sour. Running a viable, small craft malting business is difficult, and Neumann sees his fragile existence in the market as a fight against malting behemoths that have proven they can reliably supply tonnage.
So he works hard to sell his unique supply chain story, and of how craft maltsters can co-opt to inspire a paradigm shift in the way farmers grow, brewers sell and beer drinkers consume.
Asides from the challenges of marketing this vision, craft maltsters like Mainstem must of course master the nuts-and-bolts of malting itself.
After a crop is harvested, a maltster must test the quality of raw material. Upstate New York’s Hartwick College Center For Craft Food and Beverage offers lab testing services wherein the craft maltster can test raw grain for the baseline quality accepted by brewers for malt: at least 95% germination potential and protein contents within a narrow band of 10-12%.
A relatively new tool, Hartwick College’s services empower Mainstem and other small malting businesses with quality assurance data commensurate with larger malting companies. If quality baselines are met, the grains are soaked in water to near germination and air dried, with air-drying temperatures and durations determining the style of malted grain the brewer will receive.
Mainstem Malt is not unlike other craft malting businesses in their practices. Mainstem uses the malting facilities of Spokane, Washington based Palouse Pint who also seek to provide high quality, market competitive malt products centered on a story that tracks a product from origin to the countertop.
The commercial malt grower inspires a story of a product through the style in which they cultivated it.”
Craft maltsters pursue the grassroots story, but the ultimate challenge, which may reward the beer industry with added dimension and regional growth, is learning to sell this grassroots story as a component of overall beer terroir, or the unique tastes that a specific region can produce. At the same time, subtle flavor differences in vintage and locale in pilsner or two-row malt alone likely won’t suffice when compared to the stronger flavors associated with yeast strains or hop.
Phil laughed, “Will we embrace the pilsner or light lager and half a tap list will be different vintages and locales? I don’t know. That’s a bit avant-garde. What’s more realistic is to take that approach and apply it to a broader range of styles.”
So we can exhale and keep drinking hoppy beers. He went on, “barley and wheat are a more subtle part of a region’s style. It needs to taste good and have a good story.”
Terroir goes beyond the soil and weather of a region. Humans interfere with and influence the growing process simply by culturing a crop. The extents to which people will go to manicure lawns, or build trellising system for backyard tomatoes, are familiar examples. The commercial malt grower inspires a story of a product through the style in which they cultivated it.
Mainstem malt and other craft maltsters are seeking the grower whose style reflects their passions for responsible land usage and the highest quality products for local consumers. This is a story that the brewer can sell to his consumers – the nature of malt terroir – a new brand of regionalism that can inspire pride and appreciation for a place.