Malt – germinated and kilned grains of barley – is the basic building block of beer and Scotch whisky. I’ve been to maltings, the big processing plants where raw harvested barley is cleaned, soaked, turned, allowed to germinate, and kilned. I’ve stood high on top of the huge grain silos, looking over miles of Idaho farmland towards the Grand Tetons, and smelled the reek of peat from floor maltings in Scotland.
So it was with some uncertainty that I found myself driving in western Massachusetts down a broad residential street in Hadley, coming closer and closer to what the GPS told me was the address of Valley Malt, the maltings operation of Christian and Andrea Stanley. Then I saw a large garage with four oversized grain sacks and a small power auger in the driveway. A forklift rolled out of the garage, piloted by a pint-sized woman talking on a cell. I parked and waited ’til she was done with her call.
“Welcome to Hadley!” she said, offering a strong, callused hand and introducing herself as Andrea Stanley. What I’d thought was a garage was actually a small former potato warehouse, solidly built and now housing the malting operation. She walked me out around back and showed me small fields of winter barley and rye (as well as a substantial solar farm that powers part of their operation).
Hadley, she explained, stands on some of the first land to be farmed in America by European settlers; “There’s been farming in Hadley for 353 years. All the residential land is also zoned as agricultural use.” When we took a quick run out to the Stanley’s home to pick up a sample of beer made from a special smoked wheat malt, I saw the experimental plots of heirloom grains in the front yard; agricultural use indeed.
Why are the Stanleys making tiny batches of special malts in Hadley, and why do craft brewers (and distillers) pay a stiff premium for them? “We’re offering something the big guys can’t: variety,” Andrea explained. “95% of what they sell is Metcalfe [strain of barley].” We had a somewhat geeky discussion of barley strains at this point, but the take-home is simple: the large brewers and distillers who buy the lion’s share of malt are mainly interested in high yield and low waste, small brewers and distillers are often more interested in flavor.
At Valley Malt, Andrea and Christian are looking to address that desire by digging into the FDA’s gene bank of grains from around the world. “They’ll send you 5 grams of a strain for free,” Andrea said, grinning at the thought of a government program so useful and convenient. “We’re in year three of trials, having grown 45 to 6O strains up from those samples: Do they grow here? Are they plump? We’re down to fifteen now, and we’re getting to the point where we can start to sell some.”
But they mainly malt grains from established farmers, like Four Star Farms in Northfield. Similar to the Community Supported Agriculture programs that pay farmers shares up front in return for fresh vegetables through the summer, Valley Malt has started a Brewer Supported Agriculture program to encourage Massachusetts and New England farmers to grow malting barley, wheat, rye, and other less common grains like spelt, triticale and buckwheat (not a true grain, but used like one).
That’s working for Rob Martin at Mercury Brewing in Ipswich. “We have partnered with Valley Malt on a few levels,” he said. “We participated in their BSA crop share program this past year and will again this coming year. We have used them to malt grain that we have grown and harvested in Ipswich. We have our own small farming department at the brewery, we lease land in Ipswich, we own our own combine and we actually harvest our own crops. This wouldn’t be possible without the ability to have our grains malted locally.”
Ben Anhalt, co-founder of Element Brewing (not far away in Millers Falls), also uses Valley Malt. “We made our Vernal dunkel wheat wine with Valley Malt’s wheat malt,” he told me over a glass of Element’s Extra Special Old ale, made with heirloom malt from an English maltings. “The wheat was grown at Four Star Farms; we also used Snowshoe Farm maple syrup, from Worthington. It works out for us, and it works out for Four Star; they sell to Valley at a better price, and don’t have to sell it off for feed. We only made one batch – it sold out in five days.”
Chris Lohring, who’s having good success with his new Notch Brewery line of 4.5% and under “session beers”, is a big fan of Valley Malt. “The wheat in my Saison is from Valley Malt, as well as my new annual BSA Harvest beer, which is 1OO% Valley Malt,” he said, adding that he intended to add more beers using Valley Malt to the Notch portfolio.
“I started brewing commercially in 1993,” Lohring said, explaining why he was such a strong supporter of the Stanleys. “But I stepped into a barley field for the first time in my life this past summer. It’s been the condition of the East Coast brewer that we have been so far removed from our raw materials. I can work with Valley Malt to get grains, or types of grains, malted to my exact specifications. I tasted it this year in my BSA Harvest; there is no other grain I could have used to achieve that individual flavor. And I can do this with a phone call, or a visit. It’s a luxury in my mind.”
Lohring also sees economic value in having a “micro-maltster” in the Bay State. “The barley was grown by a Western Massachusetts farmer,” he said, “malted by a Massachusetts malt house, brewed by a Massachusetts native in a Massachusetts brewery, and delivered by a Massachusetts family-owned wholesaler [Burke]. All that money goes to people in Massachusetts, and not to some guy on the West Coast.”
Valley Malt’s products vary widely, and can come in very small batches indeed; Andrea showed me a batch of cherrywood-smoked triticale that I could lift with my two hands. They do a fair amount of smoking of malt, using local hardwoods: oak, cherry, apple, and more. All the production involves a lot of hard, hand labor: Andrea and Christian get in the malting bin and turn the malt with shovels. (“We could automate,” she said, “but nine times out of ten we actually enjoy doing it, and you know what the malt’s doing by the smell and the feel”.) The equipment is old, if sturdy, and sometimes the malt spills; Andrea estimated that about a ton of malt spills every other week, and she shovels it up by hand.
As you can imagine, these small custom batches aren’t cheap; they come at a fair premium. Yet Valley Malt is expanding; they were anticipating the arrival of four new malting bins. “If I got a new order, a new customer today,” she told me in mid-December, “we’d maybe get it done in March.” What’s the attraction?
It’s locality, and it’s differentiation. “We have created a product line called 5 Mile,” said Martin, “the premise being that a majority of the ingredients come from within 5 miles of Ipswich. In a world where people are more cognizant of where their food comes from, and where people are more interested in supporting their neighbors, this type of product really fits a niche that I believe will continue to expand. We have the resources due to our other brands to do something with new and exciting for the consumer the 5 Mile brand, even though that may not be particularly profitable.”
Lohring sees micromalting working like organic food, or – far enough back – like craft beer. “I’ve heard from some brewers that the quality may not be high enough or the cost is too high,” he said. “What Valley Malt has undertaken is pioneering work, and you need to take some risks with them. I’d rather be a doer than a critic.”
The circle seems to be coming back to where craft beer started: consumers have tried craft, liked it, and now they’re looking for good beer from their local brewers. What’s even more “local” than that? Locally-brewed beer made with locally-grown, locally-malted ingredients! Get to know the beers that use Valley Malts – some brewed by Ipswich, Notch, Element, Wormtown, Cambridge, Mystic, Wandering Star, Tired Hands, and Clown Shoes – and make sure your customers know about that local angle.
“There are about ten micromaltings,” Andrea said. “Rebel in Reno, Colorado Malting, River Bend in North Carolina, Malterie Frontenac in Quebec – they make the malt for Sam Adams Infinium – and some are building. (She gets calls from planning stage maltsters every day.) But you can only get all-Massachusetts malt from us!”