Valley Malt: New England’s First Micro-Maltster

Feature by | Aug 2011 | Issue #55

In November 2009, Andrea Stanley made a disturbing discovery. She was researching what it would take to brew an all-local beer and ran into a rather large obstacle. “You wont believe this,” she said to her husband, Christian. “You can grow local barley here, but there’s no one around to malt it.”

In New England, a region that was once peppered with regional malt houses—even Sam Adams was a maltster—brewers now send barley to the Northwest or Canada to be malted.

So, the Stanleys got to work. After talking with farmers, they invested in malting equipment and a combine tractor to harvest the grain. In September 2010, they opened Valley Malt in Hadley, Mass. It’s a micro-maltster operation that’s one of only a handful in the country, joining the likes of Rebel Malting Co. in Reno, Nev., Colorado Malting Company in Alamosa, Colo., and the Rogue Malt Floor on Rogue Ales’ Micro Barley Farm in Oregon.

But Valley Malt is the only commercial micro-maltster east of the Mississippi. Meeting at the crossroads of brewing and agriculture, they’re bringing the malt house back to New England, supporting local farmers and changing the way the region’s breweries are making and thinking about beer.

On a hazy afternoon in late July, the sun is shining and literal amber waves of grain on Andrea and Christian’s field are bending in the breeze. Their 2 1/2-acre plot is comprised of 45 variety plots of landrace and heirloom barley (both two- and six-row) sourced from the USDA GermPlasm gene bank. About 15 are varieties that have been traced back to the first New England settlers; the others are from various parts of the world and date back hundreds to thousands of years.

Sitting on a hill above the field is the malt house packed in an old onion and potato processing facility, where they malt 2,000 pounds of grain a week, sourced from farmers in Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, Maine and, starting soon, Connecticut.

Malting is the process of modifying the grain. Soaking the barley kernel in water allows enzymes to develop within the grain; those enzymes break down the kernel’s proteins and carbohydrates to release starches, which are then converted into fermentable sugars during the mash.

The process is done in three steps: steeping the barley in water for two days, letting it germinate for three to five days, and kilning it for one to two days. Roasting comes last. Larger malt houses have three separate pieces of equipment for the process, a “tower” system that’s gravity fed and creates a regimented schedule, allowing little room for customization of each batch.

Breweries and homebrewers buying over 500 pounds can either buy malt by the pound (at around $1 for the base malt and $1.25-$1.50 for specialty malt), or they can buy a share of a barley field through Valley Malt’s Brewery-Supported Agriculture program for $500. Valley also offers a Malt of the Month Club for homebrewers—for $200 per share, a homebrewer becomes a shareholder of specialty grains.

The Stanleys’ first buyer was Ben Roesch from Wormtown Brewery in Worcester, Mass. Roesch, whose first job out of college was as a forester on an organic farm, is a true beer locavore. Using barley grown on Czajkowski Farm in Hadley and hops grown on Four Star Farms in Northfield, Mass., Roesch created MassWhole, the first beer brewed with 100 percent Massachusetts ingredients in more than 50 years. A rustic difference in taste is noticeable, thanks to that something special from New England soil—the malt’s terroir.

“It’s toastier, breadier, earthier, and has much more unique flavors,” Roesch says.

In their first year, Valley Malt has worked with 20 breweries, including Dogfish Head, who in February brewed Noble Rot, a Saison made with Red Winter Wheat. Other beers produced with Valley Malt include Valley Girl, a session ale by Cambridge Brewing Company, and Rising Tide’s Daymark, a Pale Ale brewed with Maine-grown rye. And about half of Valley Malt’s business comes from distilleries in New York.

As a micro-maltster, Valley Malt produces a miniscule amount of malt per year compared to larger maltsters like the Briess Malt & Ingredients Company or Cargill, which operates 10 malting plants in eight countries. This means the prices are higher—around double what large malt houses charge—and they can’t always fill orders in the timeframe brewers would like. But it also means that they can collaborate directly with brewers and farmers to make small batches of malt for specific beers.

Chris Lohring, who recently launched Notch Brewing, worked with Valley Malt in creating smoked malt for a Grodziskie, a Polish smoked wheat beer made from 100 percent smoked wheat malt.

And, until a ruling on July 20 changed the definition of “farmer-brewery,” Valley Malt had also become a boon … Before the law changed (see News), most breweries opening up in the state were applying for a farmer-brewer license, which costs $22 a year for breweries producing 5,000 barrels or less, and which allows for self-distribution. The alternatives are a $4,500 wine and malt beverage license, which prohibits self-distribution, or a $1,000 pub-brewery license.

In order to get the farmer-brewer license, the brewery needed to prove it had some sort of connection with Massachusetts agriculture. A simple way to do this was to buy malted barley, sourced from Massachusetts farmers, from Valley Malt.

“Valley Malt has been a one-stop shop for farmers and brewers to make the connection between the two,” says Rob Martin, president of the Massachusetts Brewers Guild and Ipswich Ale Brewery. Martin was so excited by the idea that he bought his own combine to harvest rye in Ipswich, which he then sends to Valley Malt for malting. Also in a neat brewer-farmer symbiotic relationship, many farmers use the barley as a rotational crop to ward off harmful fungi.

“It helps manage your other problems, like Rhizoctonia, so if you want to plant strawberries the following year, they won’t be affected,” says Joe Czajkowski, from Czajkowski Farm in Hadley.

Before Valley Malt existed, a farmhouse brewery could never truly be a farmhouse brewery, and a harvest beer could never truly be a harvest beer. “The cool thing is that in the fall, a lot of brewers are going to be brewing harvest beers that’s not just a name, it’s actually harvested from the local area,” says Notch’s Lohring.

Christian and Andrea also have plans for expansion. Floor malting—where the barley is dried on the floor instead of in an automated pneumatic system—is one possibility for them. In August, they’ll tour floor-malting facilities in the UK, thanks to a Michael Jackson Scholarship from the American Distilling Institute. And they’ll continue working with breweries and farmers to grow more experimental barley varieties.

“It takes time to grow out these varieties since the USDA GermPlasm only gives you 5 grams—approximately 50 seeds—to grow out,” says Andrea. “Once we grow out, on our 5 acres, enough seed for the commercial production of these varieties, we will partner with our local farmers to grow them for us to then malt.”

It’s safe to say that the New England malt house is back.