By Jennifer Breckner
Since its inception in 2013, the Craft Maltsters Guild has grown from 8 founding Member Malthouses to an impressive 67 craft maltsters across North America today. 12 are located in Canada, the remaining 55 are in the United States. The American Malting Barley Association reports a total of 122 malting plants, including large-scale commercial operators, currently exist in the US as of 2022. In the face of a variety of challenges, craft malt has shown it has staying power and continues to grow across the continent.
Craft malt production is growing internationally too. In January, the Guild welcomed the first International Malthouse board member in the organization’s history, Jean Girardeau-Montaut, Founder and CEO of A VOS Malts in Granges-les-Beaumont, France, to the International or Developing Malthouse seat. International membership has increased and the Guild community now includes members around the globe, from rural Patagonia to several sites in Australia, Italy, Norway, and the Netherlands. Attendance at the Guild’s 2022 virtual conference speaks to this international diversity with individuals from 18 countries attending. The Malt Cup also received malt submissions from multiple foreign maltsters.
As interest in craft malt grows within the industry and from media platforms and consumers too, we thought it apt to take a temperature check of what themes we see now that the industry is maturing, how growth is tied to the health of the craft breweries and distilleries around the world, and what challenges lay ahead that might slow production, as well as the opportunities that will push it forward.
“It’s been a challenging few years for everyone and craft malt hasn’t escaped this,” offers the Guild’s Executive Director, Jesse Bussard. “The pandemic, hiring challenges, supply chain disruptions, rising input costs… are hitting everyone equally. Despite all this, we’re still seeing positive growth in craft malt.”
Here are some themes we have observed.
Farmers as Maltsters
One thread that continues to arise time and again is long-standing farming families jumping into malt production as they learn they can get more income for grains now that they aren’t just growing them for animal feed. Younger generations are often driving this move given the popularity of craft beer and spirits and by bringing craft malt production to the farm, they view it as a value-added project that diversifies the farm’s portfolio.
Pioneers Dany Bastille and Cindy Rivard transitioned the family cattle farm in Quebec into MaltBroue Inc. way back in 2002 and are still going strong, as the last few years have seen more and more new malthouses across the globe. Fourth-generation Dutch farmers, Lidy and Jan Legters, transformed their dairy farm into Vloermouterij Masterveld, a floor malting facility in 2017, and Chad Brown, the owner of Wyoming Malting Company, developed his company that same year on family farmland. Likewise, Garrett Headon is the fourth generation to live and farm in County Kildare in the Republic of Ireland. With the founding of Athgarrett Malt in 2018, he became the first to malt grain there. More recently we’ve seen Daniel and Alison Milne founding Crafty Maltsters in Fife, Scotland, in 2019 on the land Daniel’s father Norman had been farming cereals on for 50 years. This list could go on and on, but suffice it to say craft malt has a deep connection to agriculture.
This shift helps to keep their farming practices alive—Gian Franco Regnicoli, Mastri Birrai Umbri’s maltster in Italy offers, “We are farmers first,”—while taking advantage of the financial opportunities that growing and processing malted barley and other grains for the craft beer and spirits markets offer. In doing so, across the board these businesses provide a missing link in infrastructure, allowing connections to be made along the supply chain, and providing opportunities for regional grain production to continue to grow.
Craft Malt Embodies Quality and an Expression of Terroir
Whether it’s the creation of bespoke malthouses in established companies like Lobethal Bierhaus in Lobethal, South Australia, or larger cooperative models like LINC Malt in Washington state, across the country and the world the idea that craft malt equals a quality product that distinguishes itself in flavor from macro-produced malts still bears weight. “Craft malting stands on the terroir philosophy,” explains Glen Fox, the Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at the University of California, Davis. “Grain quality translates to malt quality [translates] to brewing quality.”
The idea of terroir as it applies to grains—that taste and flavor are results of the environment in which they are grown and produced—is much more enmeshed popularly in European culture and can be seen in the way that those malthouses market themselves.
Irish Craft Malts touts that they provide “customers a truly 100 percent Irish craft malt, with guaranteed provenance.” That concept is important also to French malthouse A VOS Malts as they work to re-localize cereal and malt production there, promoting agricultural biodiversity and allowing French brewers and distillers to re-discover malt’s sensory aspects so that they can create fresh products made with local flavor, strengthening their regional identity.
Terroir is often expressed through the cultivation and use of heritage and ancient grains. While not all malthouses engage with these varieties because they can be trickier to grow and often provide less yield, those that do express concern for biodiversity, a desire to reconnect to a lost heritage, and the added storytelling ability that these grains embody as the reasons that they go the extra mile.
In addition, agricultural tourism, in which farms, ranches, and the like create experiences for the public to learn about and partake in agricultural practices and celebrate rural life while bringing in extra income, has deep roots in Europe. Here, the production of local agricultural products is a catalyst for tourism. Lobethal Bierhaus, for example, is situated within an area known for its artisanal businesses that produce everything from locally cultivated cheese to cherries to cider and other fermented beverages–all with a focus on provenance.
Terroir has roots in the U.S., most prevalent in the wine industry. Within craft malt we see the concept popping up within the mission and marketing materials of many malthouses and through regional grain advocacy groups, yet the concept has not taken root nationally or with consumers on a large scale. Provenance helps differentiate one product from another and highlights the work of small and family farmers so it continues to be an important marketing tool. It will continue to grow in importance here though, if the Guild’s upcoming September 8th Member Webinar “Tasked with Terroir” is any indication.
A Commitment to Sustainability
The extreme and ongoing effects of climate change and people’s desire to see businesses combat this make it so they need to think about their environmental impact. Guild members across the world have been motivated for many years to live lightly on the land and to work to ease the environmental impacts of an energy-intensive industry.
Examples include Destillerie Farthofer in Lower Austria who build on a one-hundred-year family tradition to commit to biodiversity by cultivating rare and endangered grain and fruit varieties and sourcing water for their organic spirits from a well on their land. Niagra Malt in upstate New York is carbon neutral and generates more energy than they use through the introduction of a 15kW solar panel roof. Nevada’s Bentley Heritage Estate Distillery earned a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification for their environmental and preservation efforts and Sinagua Malt in Arizona is a B-Corporation created to provide a market solution for declining river flows in the Verde Valley. Partnering with the Nature Conservancy and local farmers, Sinagua has transitioned 433 cumulated acres of farmland from thirsty crops like wheat and pasture to low water, small grains like barley.
Lastly, Voyager Craft Malt in New South Wales, Australia, built sustainable practices into the expansion of their 10,000-ton state-of-the-art on-farm malting facility and malt tourism destination complex, including innovative processes such as utilizing excess steep water to irrigate local crops, kilning malt with Biochar instead of fossil fuels, and packing base malts in fully recyclable, biodegradable bags.
Burgeoning Potential for Craft Malt Growth
China imports a great deal of malt from a few countries including Canada, as well as increasing amounts of barley from the U.S., as the world’s largest beer producer. According to Peter Watts, managing director at the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre, the biggest story there is that the large-scale multinational brewers are changing how they operate because the growth of craft brewing has pressured them to focus more on quality. “Today beer production is down by volume 20 percent in China… but the premium market has grown dramatically over that period. Now you have all of these little craft brewers popping up all over…and creating competition so the macro brewers are having to shift even more so to have to focus on quality.”
Hopefully, the next phase of development for China will be craft beer and spirits driving the use of locally produced ingredients. One business, in particular, Great Leap Brewing, established in 2010 in Beijing, has committed to brewing with Chinese ingredients. Their Pale Ale No. 6 includes 100% local pale and roasted malts and is hopped with Chinese Qingdao flower hops. They also built China’s first coolship in Beijing near the Great Wall of China. Now up to four locations—three in Beijing and one in Chengdu—they’ve shown that brewing with better quality ingredients is a profitable model.
African beer production is dominated by large-scale companies but it has a small but robust craft beer community where African-born entrepreneurs are making a name for themselves in South Africa and elsewhere across the continent—Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. Many of them are using indigenous ingredients, including grains, as a way to localize production, speaking to the identity of the place and its people.
Okavango Brewery in Northern Botswana brews with local millet, a staple crop. Malted sorghum can be purchased at the grocery store since it is used by mothers and grandmothers to home-brew a traditional beer called umqombothi. Sorghum is also cultivated widely in places like Ghana where Clement Djameh uses it in the beer he produces at Inland Microbrewery.
Fonio, the ancient African super grain, has also found its way to beers created in the U.S. Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster, Garrett Oliver, has worked with Chef Pierre Thiam and his company Yolélé Foods, to support West African farmers by importing the gluten-free, drought-resistant grain for use in several beers, including Seed, Stalk, and Root, a European dark lager brewed for the 2021 Barrel & Flow Festival, in collaboration with Cajun Fire Brewing Company out of New Orleans, and the recently released 36” Chain, a double pilsner collaboration with hip hop artists Run the Jewels.
Lastly, Soul Barrel Brewing, located outside of Franschhoek, South Africa, was just awarded Best Beer in Africa at the African Beer Cup 2022 for their Live Culture Grand Cru, a barrel-aged farmhouse ale that includes 100% local ingredients including barley from Caledon, citrus fynbos, a type of indigenous shrub, and hops grown in Soul Barrel’s beer garden. The beer was fermented with wild yeast native to the brewery.
Whether in the U.S., the UK, or Italy, the examples previously mentioned support the idea that once a craft beer market is established and includes companies to whom using locally-sourced ingredients is important, craft malt production and use is soon to follow.
Challenges and Opportunities
Craft malt has staying power but all of that could be threatened by extreme weather occurrences. “Long term, the elephant in the room is climate change,” offers Bussard. “That’s our biggest direct threat because it will affect our ability to do everything else we need to do to make malt – grow it, malt it, and brew and distill with it. In foreign countries, the lack of accessible grain and malt quality testing is also a serious issue. Additionally, the capital needed to establish an operation and purchase malting equipment to operate at a sustainable scale can be daunting.”
Yet, the industry is strong and continues to grow, inspiring producers, brewers and distillers, and consumers alike to center beer and spirits made with craft malt as an important part of the local food and beverage landscape. In just a little over 10 short years, the ability to brew a beer with 100% local or regional grains went from a pipe dream to a reality.
June Russell, director of regional food programs at the Glynwood Center for Regional Food and Farming in New York, spoke during her 2022 Craft Malt Conference keynote speech about how much opposition she encountered a decade ago when she nudged brewers to use regional malt in their beer. Last year Seismic Brewing in Santa Rosa, released Tremor California, a popular and award-winning certified organic light lager that contains 100% organic barley from California farmers and is malted by Admiral Maltings in Alameda. Tremor is not a rare, small-batch beer that only beer nerds and connoisseurs know about. It’s an everyday brew, offered in cans, that you often see at barbecues and picnics and that you can buy at grocery stores like Albertson’s and beverage shops like BevMo!; It is so popular that it spawned a citrus wheat spin-off earlier this year. This is progress.
Craft malt has momentum and it’s due to farmers seeing opportunities to gravitate toward grain production, to people being passionate about reviving an ancient craft and filling a hole in the small grains supply chain, and to the pursuit of excellence and a quality product that changes for the better how beer and spirits taste while making a statement about the importance of the reintroduction of the cultivation of local and regional grains. Despite many challenges, It’s an exciting time to be part of craft malt.
Photo credits: Vloermouterij Masterveld, Destillerie Farthofer, Voyager Craft Malt, and Bonsak Malt