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Micro-malting: Is ‘local’ a good enough reason?

Is there a future for local malts in beer?

I don’t have a clue, but a story in Modern Farmer suggests micro malt houses could work.

Andrea Stanley, part of the husband-wife team who owns Valley Malt, is starting a craft maltsters guild, and estimates there are five more coming in New York state alone.

“This isn’t just a flash in the pan,” says Stanley. “It’s a real industry.”

They’ve got tiny staffs, and even tinier margins. (Colorado Malting Company, for instance, produces 13,500 pounds of malt a week, compared to the 15.6 million put out by Rahr, one of the country’s biggest malthouses.) But these micro-maltsters are hoping to be the Davids to the Goliaths of the massively consolidated U.S. malting industry.

And hey, why not? It happened with beer.

“In many ways this parallels where craft brewing was in the ‘70s, when we had less than 40 small breweries in country trying to make something different. And today we have thousands of small breweries,” says John Mallett, Director of Operations at Bell’s Brewery, in Kalamazoo, MI, who is writing a book on malt. “We’re starting to see these [malting] entrepreneurs asking a lot of questions, and trying to start something up, and it’s an exciting time.”

John Mallett is a lot smarter than I am, so I’m going with whatever he says. (The book he is writing will be the fourth in Brewers Publications’ ingredients “brewing elements series” — my hops book was the second.)

Notice that Mallett doesn’t say it will be enough for these malts simply to be locally kilned. They’ll need to be in some way special, because local maltsters can’t compete on price and the “taste of local” can be ephemeral. The new wave of regional hop farmers (meaning those not located in the Northwest) face the same challenge.

Perhaps Modern Farmer will publish a story about them next. The magazine just hit the newsstands this week, leading to an amusing review in the Wall Street Journal: “Glossy Acres: A Magazine’s Lush Take on Farmers.”

Think of it as Gourmet crossed with Dwell and sent to “Green Acres,” as veteran editors from Manhattan’s largely livestock-free magazine world try to tap into the interest in back-to-the-soil living.

Put another way, doesn’t seem like they are targeting drinkers of “regular beer.”

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