Trailblazers 2017: Local Malt


A Combine harvesting Wheat in a Vertical Malt field // Photo courtesy of Vertical Malt

A Combine harvesting Wheat in a Vertical Malt field // Photo courtesy of Vertical Malt

Malt is the backbone of craft beer. In fact, it can take three to seven times more malt to brew a craft beer than a domestic lager. That’s good news for the state’s few barley growers and maltsters.

Up until two years ago, Minnesota was home to just one malting company, Rahr Malting Corporation. The 170-year-old company produces 460,000 metric tons of malt each year—enough to brew 6 billion bottles of the average craft beer. The technical center and pilot brewery, completed in 2016, have given the company the ability to test its ingredients in a real-world brewery setting in order to better meet the needs of their clients.

While Minnesota is home to a giant like Rahr, barley is not a staple crop in the state. A number of factors, including blight and the rise of more lucrative crops have meant Minnesota’s barley fields have transitioned to corn and soybeans. But breweries in search of locally grown barley malt have a growing list of options, thanks to a enterprising group of farmers and craft maltsters.

In New Ulm, August Schell Brewing Company teamed up with two local farmers to plant Pinnacle malt to use in its beers. This year, Schell’s contracted 140 acres of barley from the two farmers, which will make up about 16 percent of the grain used to brew Schell’s 150,000 barrels of annual production. One of the brewery’s newest offerings, Fort Road Helles, is made with 100 percent locally grown barley.

In Fisher, Minnesota, father and son team Tim and Adam Wagner had an idea for a small-scale malting facility which won them $10,000 in the Northwest Minnesota Foundation’s IDEA Competition in 2015. They malted on a pilot facility throughout 2016 and debuted a full-scale production system in early 2017. Another expansion in capacity should be in place by the end of this year. Vertical Malt currently produces malted barley in two-ton batches, used by breweries across the state including Junkyard in Moorhead and Badger Hill in Shakopee.

The state gained its second craft maltster in 2017, with the founding of Maltwerks in Detroit Lakes. Like Vertical Malt and other craft maltsters, Maltwerks’ small batch approach appeals to brewers who are looking for malt customized for a particular recipe or who want to forge a connection to the farm where the barley was grown and the farmer who grew it.

On the research front, beginning in 2009, the University of Minnesota initiated a winter barley breeding program with the goal of developing a hardy variety of winter barley that Minnesotan farmers could plant as a cover crop and would produce high quality grain for the malting and brewing industries.

If successful, we may see many more farmers planting barley and more craft malting operations following in the footsteps of these trailblazers.

Trailblazers are the people, ideas, businesses, and organizations doing necessary, important, and groundbreaking work in the realms of food, drink, and culture. See the rest of The Growler’s 2017 Trailblazers here.

About Brian Kaufenberg

Brian Kaufenberg is the editor-in-chief of The Growler Magazine.