This interview was conducted in early May. It has been edited for clarity.

Jesse Bussard, Craft Maltsters Guild (JB):  Tell me about yourself. What’s your background?

Matt Enns (ME):  I grew up in small-town Saskatchewan playing sports, music, and helping on the family farm.  I went to the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) initially taking agriculture classes. Eventually, I switched my focus to physical therapy while also playing men’s volleyball for the U of S Huskies. This culminated in a Division I championship and graduation from the School of PT both in 2004. 

I lived and worked in Saskatoon and was eventually able to organize to take unpaid leave for seeding and harvest seasons. I bought a stake in the farm in 2014 when a neighboring farmer sold out, and eventually wound down the physio practice to farm full-time. 

Two years after that we started Maker’s Malt and made the move back to Rosthern. My wife has a Ph.D. in Health Sciences and a Masters in PT and we have twin boys that just turned 2. She is currently working from home on research for the U of S. The company that she works for clinically is building a “remote” location clinic in Rosthern that is supposed to open in August.

JB:  On your website Maker’s Malt is described as a “small collective of farmers who have decades of experience growing high-quality malt barley.” Break that down for me a bit. Who are the farmers in your collective?

ME:  My Dad has been farming since the 1970s. He joined up with Jim Flath of Rahan Farms around 20 years ago. Their farms were 3 miles apart and their land base was concentrated near home. They created a partnership to access economies of scale, find efficiency in equipment costs, and share labor.  Their simple partnership-style has been utilized across the industry and featured in the Western Producer as a model. 

Chad Krikau and I joined the collective about 8 years ago. Chad is about the same age as I am.  He went through the U of S agriculture program and became a professional agronomist, but always wanted to farm for himself.  Similar to many young farmers the capital costs of starting up at a feasible size on his own were almost insurmountable, so he started by renting a few hundred acres and traded his labor for use of our equipment.  This relationship worked well and Chad was also seen as a great resource on agronomics. When our neighbor’s farm came up for sale, Chad and I both bought pieces of it and merged into the group at an ownership level. As a side note, Chad and his wife Darlene are both talented and won the Canadian Young Farmers of the Year award a while back. 

JB:  How did you get the idea to start Makers’s Malt?

ME:   In terms of starting the malthouse, when I was winding down my physical therapy work, my wife Katie and I bought a house in Orlando, Florida.  Her sister was graduating from optometry down there and if you know anything about Saskatchewan’s winters you won’t need to know any more about our motivation!  (Fun fact: We have done some social media research and believe we have the coldest average temp malt house in the world! Last winter, we got down to -45°F at one point. The wind chill was -63°F.)

I joined a group called the Nona Brew Crew where I began to get a picture of what craft beer was going to be.  It hadn’t hit yet in Saskatchewan. These guys were talking about beers and breweries they loved and were lining up to buy one-off releases at places like Cigar City in Tampa.  I saw what I thought the future could potentially look like when the craft beer boom reached us. 

On the flip side, Saskatchewan is kind of a Mecca for malt barley. If you don’t believe me just check the stats.  U of S has a historical breeding program and the Sask Valley, where we are located, hosts some of the best lands in all of Saskatchewan.  My Dad and Jim also have a long history of consistently growing some of the best malt barley.

I came at farming slightly differently and relished in the chance to capture the value of our premium barley (rather than have it all mixed off to a generic spec), to make it traceable, and to connect directly to our end-users who would do something special. Philosophically, that aligned with what I wanted to do!

JB:  What’s Maker’s philosophy on “craft malt?”

ME:  Our control of the supply chain from the farm gate through the malthouse is integral to our philosophy. We are blessed to be in a local RM (similar to a county) with a history of great crops in Saskatchewan, which is the heartland of malt barley in North America. Despite our farm already being well-known for growing great malt barley, we have still dramatically changed our agronomic practices on the farm to suit our malthouse needs and especially end-user needs.

In the malthouse, craft malt can mean a lot of things. We believe in single-origin and traceable malt. We believe that unique offerings and flavor are integral, but that they can’t come at the compromise of quality and consistency. We also believe collaboration, impeccable service, communication, and other intangibles are key components to the craft and the way we work with our customers.

JB:  Do you work mostly with brewers or distillers, or, is it an even mixture?

ME:  We work with both brewers and distillers, although brewers would take the bulk of our sales. Our craft beverage industry is young and their market share is small but growing. We are in a unique environment compared to many of the craft malthouses we see at the conference (Craft Malt Conference). 

Saskatchewan seeded over 3 million acres of barley last year which is more than the entire area seeded to barley in the US. However, the population of our province is less than 1 million people. We are surrounded by high-quality barley, have massive multinational maltsters close by with a sparse population density of consumers. Our business challenges are certainly different because of our demographics!

JB:  Tell me about “The Bow Project.” What is it? When did it start? What results are you seeing, if any yet?

ME:  The Bow Project is probably the favorite project we’ve been a part of since Maker’s started and I could probably write an entire article on it. That being said, I’ll try to be concise. Two main malting barley varietals take up a huge percentage of market share – Copeland and Metcalfe. These varieties are strong and have massive adoption from the biggest maltsters and brewers in the world. 

Malting and brewing at that level are both very consolidated and don’t like change, therefore it is difficult to bring new varieties into the industry. However, from the farm gate, growers are dealing with varieties that were bred in the late 1990s. The breeding improvements of the last 20 years in other crops are massive. Disease resistance, agronomic qualities, yield, etc. have all markedly improved. If we were growing, wheat, or canola that was bred 20 years ago on our farm we’d be a laughing stock.

The history of The Bow Project is we wanted to champion a new variety tangibly and to try to push it forward. Bow (like Copeland) was created at the U of S in Saskatoon. It’s arguably the best barley breeding program in the world. 

We brought together the whole supply chain, from the breeding team at the U of S’s Crop Development Centre (CDC) (led by Dr. Aaron Beattie), SeCan (a not-for-profit company that is the largest distributor of certified seed to Canadian farmers), our farm group that grew the barley, maltsters, and brewers.  SeCan sponsored us to distribute a batch worth of malted Bow barley for free to every brewery in Saskatchewan that wanted to play a role in the project. We had around 80% of all the breweries in the province involved. We also distributed it to the homebrewing clubs.

 We scheduled events in the 2 main cities in Saskatchewan. These events were fantastic and featured speaking by the breeders, growers, maltsters, and brewers on their experience bringing Bow from the lab, through the fields and malthouses, and finally into the glass and featured all of the Bow beers!  It brought together an extremely diverse group. We had a packed room. It was standing room only with barley breeders, farmers, brewers, industry/supply-chain companies, and craft beer enthusiasts. 

JB:  I also see you sell directly to homebrewers on your website. What are some successful ways you’ve found to engage this community?

ME:  Homebrewers are kind of the anchor of a craft beer community. Although our percent of revenue from homebrewing sales is very low, we see them as the “influencers” of the craft beer community and look to engage them. We’ve sponsored and judged competitions with our malts, given swag for their internal competitions, and involved the groups in shaping our interactions with them. We’ve hosted tours with the homebrewer groups and recently have offered free malt delivery in our nearest city, Saskatoon.

JB:  COVID-19 question: In general, how has the pandemic affected you and your business? How have you adapted/changed in response to the virus?

ME:  COVID has dramatically impacted our end-users and therefore our sales. It’s a bit early to have legitimate math, but I would estimate we’re selling at 50% of our normal rate over the last 6-8 weeks. Maker’s turned 2 in January and we had just hit the point where we were selling more than we could produce monthly. We had been anticipating that happening so we had built up a decent amount of inventory by running full production over the last year.

We’ve recently done 3 batches in a row here that are for special projects with pre-sold malt which has been great. We’ve just started into the very compressed Saskatchewan seeding season. We’ll be putting in 10,000 acres on our farm in the next 3-4 weeks, so we expect to let the plant idle after our current batch finishes until the end of seeding, which is something we have not done since we started production. 

We’ve accessed government programs where we can and kept our one (very valuable) employee at full time. I live off my farm income so thankfully that’s allowing breathing room financially.

JB:  What is one positive thing related to craft malt you’ve experienced in 2020?

ME:  I was elected to the Saskatchewan Barley Producers Board and secondary to that went to the Canadian Barley Symposium held February 24th-25th, 2020 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Winnipeg in February can be kind of terrible, (-40 F is definitely on the table outside), but this was an amazing eye-opener into the industry. SaskBarley has a seat at the Brewing and Malting Barley Research Institute board meetings which has representatives from some of the biggest maltsters and brewers in the world. We’re talking heads of malt production from Rahr, Boortmalt, CanadaMalt, and Briess and their counterparts from brewers like AB-InBev and Sierra Nevada to name a few examples.  The malting and brewing experience in that room was immense.  We also have a seat at the Prairie Grain Development Commission which was held concurrently, and through that get to vote on what new barley varieties get approved for registration.  I sat on the malt quality board and through that got a role in shaping the future of the malting barley industry. The whole week of conferences was massively educational and invaluable in terms of contacts and insight.

JB:  Do you have any parting words of wisdom or hope for your fellow craft maltsters during the pandemic?

ME:  I feel thankful I can walk to work at the malthouse and be involved with great customers that are trying to adapt and thrive. I’m thankful that on the farm side we’re in the integral industry of food and can continue to be productive every day.  I have two-year-old twin boys and a wife trying to work full time from home with them in the background. I am not bored or lonely and I’m thankful for that too.

Learn more about Maker’s Malt by visiting their website or following them on Instagram.