Earlier this year Loveland, Colorado’s Root Shoot Malting nearly swept the Malt Cup awards, receiving four medals: gold in the Pilsen, Light Munich, and Vienna categories, and silver in Pale Malt. 2023 marks the second year that Root Shoot took home the traveling Malt Cup for overall Best in Show for their Genie Pilsen malt.
Root Shoot Malting is the only craft malthouse to win an award all five years of the Malt Cup’s history, and over the years they’ve humbly shared that these accolades are a testament to quality sourcing, meticulous craftsmanship, and the dedication of their hard-working team. In this interview they tell us more about their successes that span beyond these quality awards, with some company history too.
Congratulations to the Root Shoot Malting team!
Tell us about Root Shoot Malting’s origin story.
The Olander family has been growing barley and other grains in the Front Range of Colorado for five generations. Prior to Root Shoot opening, most of these grains were sold on the commodity market, or to big breweries like Coors.
The commodity market is a tough one for farmers. You’re at the mercy of commodity grain prices and the fluctuations in the national market. Whatever the going price is, you’re going to get it – even if in your region, the situation is different than the national one. A bushel of barley is a bushel of barley – there’s not much room for innovation, creativity, or experimentation.
We were looking for a way to grow, both literally and figuratively, that would provide us with a reliable, stable income, but that also would keep more of our products in our local community. We don’t want to be shipping our Colorado grain off to an elevator and then across the country via train or down the Mississippi on a barge. We want folks down the road to be using it.
Todd looked at where we live and saw the thriving craft beer industry, and thought, “What if we grow super high-quality grain to sell to our local small brewery businesses?” The hiccup was, breweries mostly need malt, not raw grain. So, again in the theme of keeping it local, he came up with the rather audacious idea to build a malthouse on the farm, so we could get a 100% Colorado grown-product to craft brewers and, later, craft distillers as well.
Seven years later, here we are! The decision to leave the commodity market has, thankfully, been a good one. As we hoped, it has let us supply our local community with high-quality grain. From a business perspective, however, it has also allowed us to continue to operate. The increased value we receive for turning our crops into malt has allowed us to expand acreage, something that would have been impossible under commodity pricing. That expansion is what’s helping us build the future of Olander Farms – no small undertaking in a region where agricultural land is being pushed out in favor of development on what often seems like a daily basis.
Tell us how Root Shoot is “Saving Farms One Beer at a Time”.
Farmland is in peril in many parts of the country, and this trend is especially notable in the Front Range of Colorado where we live. Colorado’s population boom has resulted in skyrocketing land prices, making it much more profitable for farmers to sell their fields to developers rather than to keep it as farmland. On the other hand, even farmers who want to keep farming can no longer afford to purchase farmland at developer prices. Farming is a profession where all too often, profit margins are razor thin. Paying millions (sometimes tens of millions) for land is out of the question.
One potential solution for saving at least some of our agricultural lands in the Front Range is through the conservation easement process. While the details of these are rather complicated, essentially they work by providing farmers with a financial incentive to put their farmland into a protected status so that it can’t be developed. After much discussion and planning on our own farm, we made the decision to put the 112 acres Olander Farms actually owns outright in an easement. We finished that process in December of 2022. Now, we’re actively working to educate other farmers, agricultural players, and even beer drinkers about conservation as an alternative to development and the importance of keeping agricultural land local and accessible. Olander Farms will now be able to continue growing barley for future generations… and we hope to help others conserve their farms to keep Colorado’s agriculture alive and well, and growing your beer for years to come.
It’s obvious that your malthouse knows how to make quality malt. First off, what did it feel like to win? And more importantly, what’s your secret?!
Honestly, we were stunned. Not because we don’t have faith in our malt— we certainly do— but because both of these were firsts [sweeping all categories and winning every year]. Our malthouse crew was scattered all over the country, including Craig and Mike being in Maine for the event so we were all watching the livestream in different places. If you’d taken a picture of any of us, however, I think you would have seen all of us with wide eyes and jaws dropped as we heard Root Shoot’s name called over and over again.
As for tips and tricks for submitting, we use much of the same process that we use for testing our hot steeps regularly in the malthouse. Our goal is to always be producing high-quality malts, even if they’re not being submitted for awards. A few things we’d recommend for folks if they’re not already doing them:
- Do a rigorous hot steep evaluation. Use that evaluation to make sure you’re getting consistent, correct, and spectacular results for your batch of malt. If you’re not…maybe don’t use that batch of malt.
- Get an outside opinion. Better yet, get many outside opinions. We bring in outside help from our trusted network of brewers, homebrewers, and industry partners to assist with the evaluations. Sometimes we are blind to our own products and have some bias, so we take our internal evaluations and combine them with external feedback to help guide our decision-making process. This is really key to making objective decisions.
- Use a fresh batch of malt. We hope this goes without saying, but we work hard to keep malt moving off our shelves so that customers are always getting something fresh, and we submit only the freshest batches for the Malt Cup awards as well.
What advice do you have for other craft maltsters when it comes to producing quality malt?
From the farmer:
Great malt starts with great grain. We’re convinced that a significant portion of our results come from the care with which we grow our grain, and the terroir from the push over the last years that we’ve made toward building healthier soils to produce healthier plants. We know not every malthouse can grow their own grain, but don’t skimp on the raw product. You can’t turn bad grain into good malt, no matter how talented you are.
From the maltster:
Sensory evaluation is key, and hitting desired outcomes is important. Learning what levers to pull to change flavor and outcomes is just a bunch of trial and error with great documentation. Document, document, document…then try again, and document some more. Eventually, you’ll see trends in what tweaks are producing what results and you’ll be able to intentionally use these results to get the outcomes you want.
What’s on the horizon for Root Shoot?
For all seven years that we have been in operation, we’ve been growing nonstop. We’re almost at our maximum capacity, however, and we anticipate that by the end of 2023, we’ll hit that benchmark. After that, we might kick back and enjoy a beer for a minute…then get back to work!
Once we hit capacity on the malt we produce, we’ll be looking at growing our relationships with local craft distillers to use more of the raw grain we produce. We’re also preparing to roll out our own, brand-new Root Shoot whiskey project! Our first batch is in the final stages, and it’s an America Single Malt Whiskey we have created in collaboration with Boulder Spirits out of Boulder, Colorado.
As a business, we have made the conscious decision to focus on quality above all else. For us, that means putting a cap on expansion to ensure that we can maintain that quality and not run the risk of mission drift, or losing our identity. We’re a unique operation as both farm and malthouse, and we’re aware we need to carefully walk the balance of not growing more than we can handle. Farming, malt, craft beer, and spirits – it’s more than enough to keep us busy for the foreseeable future!
What else would you like to share with the greater craft malting community?
We are a very small industry trying to do really large things. Being transparent, collaborative, and willing to share can only make us all better.
We owe much of our success to the mentors that stepped in and lent us a hand when we were just getting started, and now that we are finally hitting our stride we are looking forward to paying all of that help we received forward. If you need something or have questions, please feel free to reach out! We may not give away all our secrets, but we absolutely want to see other craft malthouses succeed and we’re willing to lend a hand wherever and whenever we can!