Barley, Water, and Heat: The careful craft behind estate barley malt at Vertical Malt

Barley field located across from the Vertical Malt facilities in Crookston, Minnesota // Photo by Sheila Liming

Most grains being farmed in the Midwest are destined, directly or not, for dinner plates across the world. Adam Wagner’s grains, however, fill pint glasses across Minnesota and North Dakota through his craft malting company, Vertical Malt. Located in Crookston, a small college/ag town on the eastern edge of the Red River Valley, Wagner works with breweries local to his area and in the Twin Cities to meet their demands for malted barley.

Wagner is a dapper guy—imagine a steampunk farmer, with teashade John Lennon glasses, a neatly cropped beard, suspenders clipped to his belt, and a Vertical Malt trucker hat. Wagner can barely contain his excitement about his operation and the local beer scene more broadly.

Adam Wagner, president of Vertical Malt, showing a handful of clean barley grain // Photo by Sheila Liming

Grains (malted barley and unmalted cereals like wheat, rye, and oats, as well as “adjuncts” like corn and rice) are the cornerstone to beer. They are the source of the fermentable sugars necessary for the production of alcohol and are the second most voluminous ingredient in beer after water. For most styles, malted grains are what give a beer its backbone. It’s where all flavor begins—without a wide assortment of malt varieties, drinkers wouldn’t be able to enjoy dark chocolatey stouts and biscuity pale ales and everything in between. Because grains occupy such a central place in beer, though, they are often considered a mere platform for more exciting flavors derived from hops, fruit, or spices to flourish, especially in craft beers. Wagner aims to change all that. And, as shown by the ravenous demand for his product, local brewers and drinkers are ready.

For Wagner, estate-malted barley means two things. First, the barley must be grown and owned by a single grower whose fields’ locations are documented and tracked. Second, the barley must be malted entirely at a single site. To better understand what sets Vertical Malt apart from the small but growing set of craft malting companies around the country, it pays to first consider their name. It arose from Wagner’s dream of making a self-sufficient, vertically integrated microbrewery for which he would grow all the ingredients on his family farm in nearby Fisher, Minnesota. It was a project akin to the “pizza farms” of Wisconsin where the wheat, milk, tomatoes, basil, and even the pork for sausage all come from the land on which you enjoy your pie.

Wagner’s description of this dream speaks to his deep commitment to place—to the land that his family has farmed since the late 1800s, which informs everything he and his company stand for. After graduating from college in the early 2000s, Adam accepted that his father and uncle would control the family farm for many years to come. In turn, he instead chose an innovative way to put his interests and talents within the beverage sector to use. During the initial research phase, Wagner realized that there were few craft malting operations anywhere, even in America’s grain belt region. Here he saw his opportunity: instead of going into competition with potential customers, he decided to leave the brewing to others and focus solely on malting.

The skills Wagner learned growing up on a farm fit this work perfectly. His day-to-day labors now involve transforming a crop rather than cultivating it, but he still “works until the work is done,” as Wagner puts it. The varied jobs of a farmer—that is, engineering any part you can’t buy, fixing anything that breaks, and teaching yourself whatever skills you don’t yet know—still serve him well every step of the way. Since Wagner and his dad completed their first malting equipment prototypes from spare farm parts in 2010, his command of the process and the scale of his operations have kept expanding.

Above: Adam Wagner of Vertical peering inside the kiln that is used to dry the malt. Below: A finished batch of crystal malt // Photos by Sheila Liming

Wagner laments the fact that he hasn’t homebrewed in years. But you can’t blame him. As of now, Wagner has only one employee: his cousin, Seth. Wagner’s father, Tim, grows the barley and, once it’s clean, it’s time for malting. First, Wagner hydrates the barley in a conical tank for two days. This steeping encourages the kernels to germinate—that is, to behave like the seeds they are. Next, the sprouting barley is transferred to a rotating drum known as a germinating kilning vessel (GKV) for a period of four to six days. There, important enzymes that can break down the grain’s complex starches into simple sugars are activated and the cell walls and proteins in the kernel are degraded, making the kernel more friable and ready for mashing. Finally, dry, hot air at temperatures up to 190° Fahrenheit is introduced to the GKV for one to two days to halt germination, preventing the growing plant from using up too much of the seeds’ energy in trying to become an adult plant. Moisture level and drying temperature are responsible for producing the different products, including Vertical Pale—their standard base malt—and darker malts like caramel and crystal. Chocolate and black malts are roasted separately after kilning.

Adam Wagner, President of Vertical // Photo by Sheila Liming

In commercial terms, Vertical Malt aims to bring the “advances of modern malting to the small scale.” Wagner can produce malt to the same specs as bigger operations but with added agility, attending to craft breweries’ individualized needs. Since Wagner’s batches are smaller and more manageable than other operations, he can monitor the barley from the moment it gets wet until the steady dose of hot air completes its transformation into malt. Wagner can then share these observations with brewers, adjust the process to meet their most exacting specifications, and even develop specialty and experimental malts for them. An experiment for Wagner means putting two tons of product at risk, rather than hundreds of tons as would be the case at bigger malthouses. Wagner is intimately connected to the farm that grows the barley he uses and to the scientists working on developing new strains of barley; he lives in a place surrounded by agricultural science programs developed by North Dakota State University, the University of Minnesota–Crookston, and others. Simply put, it doesn’t get more “estate” than Vertical Malt. As of right now, the company has about a half-dozen regular customers and a half-dozen seasonal customers.

Adam Wagner displaying a variety of beers that were produced using malt from Vertical Malt // Photo by Shiela Liming

Vertical Malt isn’t stopping at beer, either; they are already collaborating with Far North Spirits in Hallock, Minnesota, to produce a peated single malt whiskey in the near future. The main challenge about the project is that it will require Wagner to design and engineer a peat-fired kiln. Luckily, there’s a book on the subject, “Smoked Beers,” and Wagner knows the author, Ray Daniels, from a course he took from him on starting a brewery.

Wagner would like to get further ahead of the current demand curve, and within the next year, he plans to expand his current four-ton batch set-up to add an additional 25 tons of capacity. He notes that the 25-ton size would be a sweet spot for him because it would translate directly to 25 pallets, which is the load limit on a single semi-truck. This way he could keep delivering to-spec estate malt to his local microbrewery customers while adding the possibility of doing seasonal projects with a bigger brewery such as August Schell Brewing Company. Given Wagner’s blend of pluck and pragmatism, there’s no reason to doubt that Vertical Malt’s share in the grain bills of beers across the Upper Midwest will continue to grow.