Brent Manning is a maltster on a mission. The co-founder of Riverbend Malt House in Asheville, N.C., wants people to be able to taste local grains in North Carolina's beers, just as vino aficionados can identify the provenance of fine wines.
"In the wine industry ... they will tell you that the No. 1 Syrah grape grows on this hillside over here because it's a bit rockier," Manning explains. "It's that very same connection to the soil and the underlying geology that creates these nuances in flavors."
And a critical element in creating beer with truly local flavor, Manning contends, is malt made from local grains.
Asheville's beer lovers are "farm-to-table, local, local, local-focused," Manning says. But when he and business partner Brian Simpson opened Riverbend in 2010, "it was almost comical that with so much of this local beer, the only thing local [in the beer] was the water."
As we've reported, water certainly can impart flavor to beer. But when it comes to creating a distinct North Carolina flavor, Manning is focused on locally sourced malt.
Malt is an essential element in beer, along with water, hops and yeast. But while most beer drinkers know that malt comes from grain, many have no idea how it's made.
That's where the maltster — yes, that's the name for people who malt — comes in: between the farmer, who grows the grain, and the brewer, who makes the beer.
To make malt, the raw grain (typically barley, wheat or rye) is sprouted in water, then dried. The process creates enzymes, breaks down the starch in the grain and produces sugars — all critical before brewing can begin.
For decades, breweries have typically purchased their malt from large-scale, mechanized facilities that pool massive volumes of grains grown throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe.
The explosion of microbreweries in recent years has spurred a small but growing craft malt industry, where tiny malt houses — facilities where malt is produced — conduct the malting process, often entirely by hand.
Emphasis on small. Andrea Stanley, who opened Valley Malt in Hadley, Mass., with her husband in 2010, says their business produces in one year what a typical Midwest malt house processes in a single day.
Back in Asheville, Brent Manning acknowledges that Riverbend also "is microscopic on the grain-buyer scale right now."
But micro-malting isn't about being big, after all. Riverbend's goal, Manning says, is "to create another niche market for these farmers to sell their grain to."
That's certainly true for farmer Peter Martens, who grows a variety of grains on his certified organic farm in New York's Finger Lakes region. In 2010, he and his father planted 20 acres of malting barley for Valley Malt, "more out of curiosity than anything else."
This year, they've planted more than 80 acres of malting barley. With demand strong, Martens is considering boosting production even further.
Craft malt houses have another benefit for farmers, says Manning: They offer some insurance against the vagaries of the market. Farmers' livelihoods depend on the price they get when they sell their product — and that price can vary wildly. Riverbend's goal "was to get farmers out of that commodity price loop," Manning says.
Amy Poirier says that has proven true on her family's farm, Hoffner Organic Farms, in Mount Ulla, N.C. Contracting with Riverbend has guaranteed a set price for their barley each year, she says. "So those fluctuations," Poirier says, "we don't have to worry about them as much."
Back in upstate New York, farmer Peter Martens says he's now getting calls regularly from new maltsters looking for certified organic barley.
More importantly, the craft maltsters "seem to be really knowledgeable about what they're doing" — and intent on building a business model that can last, Martens says.
Brewing locally sourced beer is a business, after all, which means everyone in the production chain must have an eye toward staying in the black. Even so, the locavore ethos is alive and well.
In Massachusetts, for instance, Valley Malt encourages small farmers just learning how to grow grain for malt, Andrea Stanley says. She and her husband currently work with 25 farmers and offer assistance with seed, equipment and harvesting.
"It is a lot of coordination and a lot of work," Stanley says. "I could easily just tell one of our [more experienced] farmers, 'Can you plant more acres for me?' ... But for now, we have certain values that are driving our business that just aren't about the bottom line."