By Dave Thomas

Nearly 50 years ago, I began working at a regional brewery malting our own grain and selling beer in only 11 Western states. Being much smaller than the national breweries of the time, the word “sustainability” meant, to us, following smart business practices that enabled sustaining and surviving another week, month, year against larger market-savvy breweries in the global beer market. Today, of course, the word is more aptly applied to smart, global environmental and social business practices that enable people, animals, and plants to survive. A good way to set your own sustainability goals is to learn what others are doing. Many of the following examples were outlined by Alli Buchanan (Thrive Consultancy, Mesa, AZ) and Chip Norton (Sinagua Malt, Camp Verde, AZ) when they discussed sustainability at the 2022 Craft Malt Conference.

Sustainable Malting

Nigel Davies of Munton Malt (Stowmarket, United Kingdom) wrote a nice outline of the possibilities for malthouses to improve sustainability in the 2020 MBAA TQ vol. 54, no. 4, pp 263-267, Sustainability from Farm to Malt, describing sustainability as a triple-bottom-line payback effort: people, profit, and planet. This approach is shared by The Maltsters Association of Great Britain (MAGB). They found that 60 percent of barley’s carbon footprint is on the farm (40 percent fertilizers and 20 percent fuel). Munton Malt is now 100 percent sustainable with its own renewable energy and wastewater treatment plant.

Ron Silberstein, co-founder of Admiral Maltings (Alameda, CA), describes organic farming as being “more gentle on the environment,” but points to no-till farming as a technique that is equal, if not better, for the environment. Tilling, or plowing the field, releases carbon stored in the organic matter within the soil. “Once that carbon is released, it combines with oxygen to form harmful carbon dioxide”, Silberstein explains. “By not tilling or plowing the soil, farmers sequester its carbon content. The farming technique also allows grains to grow with around 10 percent less rainfall per year. In a state like California, where Admiral is based and sources all of its barley, this is a win-win scenario.”

Barn Owl Malt (Belleville, Ontario, Canada) has implemented an onsite biological wastewater treatment plant and is a zero-landfill malthouse.

Epiphany Craft Malt (Durham, NC) wrote a Three-Year Climate Resiliency Plan which they recently updated in 2020. The plan describes how they are implementing goals for reductions in waste and carbon emissions, and water and electricity use. Epiphany recommends that companies work with farmers and maltsters who are invested in sustainable practices; move to clean energy, whether in-house or through utility purchases; endorse a federal climate solution, such as the Brewers’ Climate & Carbon Pricing Declaration and talk about the benefits to other brewers; use a carbon calculator to determine how much carbon pricing will cost; meet with legislators; and raise awareness about climate to your suppliers, customers, and the public. “I have done a lot of math [on emissions offsets]” says head maltster/owner Sebastian Wolfrum, “and over 70 percent consistently is the carbon footprint of the farming activity. It makes the most sense to start on the farming end as we are also the customer by asking them to grow for us.”

Harvest Hop & Malt (Puslinch, Ontario, Canada) contracts barley with farmers and sells malt to customers only within 2 hours of the malthouse. “We wanted to prove that malting can be done much more efficiently than the big guys,” said Mike Driscoll, owner of Harvest Hop & Malt. Their current malting water usage is at world-class levels of 1 kg water/1 kg malt due to their modified drum steep-germination vessel and all-spray (no soak) steeping.

Niagara Malt (Cambria, NY) has installed an on-site 15 kW solar array that produces and sells energy back to the grid. Bob Johnson, Niagara’s founder, and head maltster said, “I got the original malting vessel ‘Old Bessie’ from Valley Malt (Hadley, MA) and was paying $650/month in electricity. It was killing me.” said Johnson. “People with rural malthouses are kind of stuck, in terms of fuel choice. I found a wood pellet boiler and heat exchanger to use on the kiln air inlet up to 115oF for drying, then recirculate and use the solar panels and the electric elements to reach cure temperatures up to 200oF.” Rural development grants paid for most of the cost. His electricity bill is now $20/month with the pellet boiler and solar panels which are both considered renewable energy by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Root Shoot Malting (Loveland, CO) excels in sustainability communications in social media. Emily Olander (co-founder) shares, “Our brewers/distillers appreciate the steps we’re taking to improve our agricultural practices, and they value telling the story of working with a local/regional farmer to their customers. Our Field Day event is one of the most successful ways to communicate with our brewers and distillers and they get a hands-on approach to our live barley harvest. Social media and monthly newsletters are also a great tool in addition to building face-to-face relationships.” Addressing Root Shoot’s long-term sustainability goals, Olander added, “Sustainability should be top of mind, globally. We’re doing our part here along the front range by focusing more on increasing our soil health. We are honing in on 5 principles of soil health: soil armor, minimizing soil disturbance, plant diversity, continual live plant/root, and livestock integration. All of this will ultimately lead to less water usage and healthier crops and a reduction in synthetic inputs. We hope these principles will lead to an even higher standard of malting barley, and in turn, create better malt.” concludes Olander.

Other craft malthouses addressing the people side of the sustainability equation include: LINC Malt (Spokane, WA) established an employee/farmer-owned cooperative business, benefiting from increased worker commitment and improved community relations; Grouse Malt House (Wellington, CO) has focused on diverse workforce and leadership; West Branch Malts (Brunswick, OH) has several projects/donations for public benefit; Sugar Creek Malt (Lebanon, IN) ensures they have a resilient workforce; Otter Creek Brewing (Middlebury, VT) used local/social financing for capital projects; Mainstem Malt (Walla Walla, WA) and Sinagua Malt (in process) are taking the extra sustainability steps by becoming B-Corp Certified. Simpsons Malt (Berwick-upon-Tweed, United Kingdom) recently announced that they are among the 4,000 companies worldwide that are B-Corp certified.

It is critical to collaboratively discuss the sustainability of growing, harvesting, and malting of all cereal grains. Examining the carbon footprint of grains from field to beverage, identifying ecological management techniques, improving the resiliency of malting grains as drought increases nationwide, and developing online resources that enable Craft Maltsters Guild members to set goals and measure progress in food safety and climate-smart strategies makes sense. Make sure you amplify your successes by sharing with other craft maltsters through newsletters, fora, and future Craft Malt Conferences.

Dave Thomas malted and brewed at Coors for 32 years. He now brews at Dostal Alley Brewpub in Central City, Colorado, and is the author of The Craft Maltsters’ Handbook.

Photo Credit: Niagara Malt, Cambria,  NY