By Emily Hutto, RadCraft
A history lesson on The Pine Tree State reveals that Maine’s soil was once predominantly dedicated to potato production. With crop rotation came barley, both for animal feed and for malting.
That evolution to barley from potatoes is how Maine Malt House in Mapleton got started, too. Four brothers, the Bucks of Buck Farms, decided that they would give a go at barley production in 2014 after a long history of potato farming. They would go on to buy out their two uncles and “go all-in on grain,” as Jake Buck puts it. Maine Malt House now produces barley for animal feed supply and for malting, and they’re currently undergoing an expansion that will double their malting capacity by the Spring of 2022.
“The growing conditions here are a lot like the UK,” Buck says of Mapleton, one of the northernmost towns in the northernmost state in the lower 48. “We have rich soil and tropical storms that roll through. That coastal climate lends itself to a different malt flavor profile, like European-grown Marris Otter. It’s deep malt flavor- sweeter, nuttier, maltier than other domestic 2-Row.”
A couple of hundred miles south, Blue Ox Malthouse launched in Lisbon Falls, Maine in 2013. Homebrewer-turned-maltster founder Joel Alex got into malting in small batches before scaling up what would become one of the country’s first certified organic malthouses.
“Sustainability, food systems, and a propensity to enjoy solving complex problems got me into craft malting here in Maine,” says Alex. “It was in a conversation with a craft brewer at a farm potluck when the missing infrastructure for local brewers to use local grain in their beers hit me. After that was a short six months to me deciding I wanted to bring malting capacity to Maine and increase what was possible for both Maine’s grain growers and craft brewers.”
According to the Brewers Association, Maine has the second-highest breweries per capita in the country. “Maine has a combination of things that really make its beverage scene stand out and succeed,” Alex says. “One is the strength of the guilds like the Maine Brewers Guild, which is highly collaborative, helps members maintain high-quality standards for the industry, and works actively to create a friendly regulatory environment for the industry.”
Enter Allagash Brewing Company. Recently Good Beer Hunting showcased Allagash’s state-grown grain initiative, citing its commitment to use one million pounds of Maine-grown, Maine-processed grains by the end of 2021, and quoting head brewer Jason Perkins about the bottom line: “… Local grain is a lot more expensive… That higher price puts more pressure on us to communicate with our consumers what makes our beer special, and the sort of lengths we’re going to support local agriculture.”
Branch Rothschild, Allagash’s Brewhouse Manager who also sits on the Craft Maltsters Guild Board of Directors, explains that this local commitment is rooted in the relationships the brewery has with Maine Malt House and Blue Ox.
“River Trip is a good beer to highlight,” Rothschild says. “River Trip was an evolution of another beer we used to make, Hoppy Table Beer. For that beer, we had used an imported malt, Maris Otter. We wanted to keep some of the nice toasty/nutty qualities that we got with that variety. The malt from Blue Ox, possibly in part because of their floor malting system, filled that same niche nicely.”
Beyond high-quality ingredient value adds, working with local malthouses translates to responsiveness, Rothschild says. “Because of the smaller batch sizes and locality, we can collaborate much more effectively. It makes a big difference to be able to talk about the malt directly with the maltster.”
Maine’s burgeoning craft malt scene is undoubtedly linked to consumer demand for local. “Mainers consistently demonstrate that we have a high commitment and desire to eat and drink locally,” says Alex. “For example, Maine just became the first state in the nation to enshrine in its constitution the right to produce and grow your own food. At the end of the day, I think that the commitment to quality and the willingness of Maine’s larger brewers to help and support the newer breweries reach a high-quality level remains the foundation of the industry’s success.”
Rothschild agrees. “Sourcing our ingredients more locally and sustainably is baked into our culture, and craft malt is a big part of that.”
[UPDATED, February 14, 2023] This March, tour Allagash and Blue Ox with fellow malt industry peers, and meet the Buck crew who will be driving south for the fun, at the 2023 Craft Malt Conference in Portland, Maine. Registration for #CraftMaltCon2023 remains open through March 10 for in-person and March 15 for virtual attendance options. Make sure you don’t miss out. Register here.