My investigation into the global malt supply chain started with an overall profile of the industry. I looked at the global malting companies that supply the bulk of the world’s malt, and I examined the smaller companies that supply malt for the craft brewing industry.
Now I want to look at malthouses that are the opposite of the the huge global corporations, companies that are very small and very local. To that end, I recently spoke with Andrea Stanley from Valley Malt, a craft malthouse in Massachusetts. She was kind enough to share some of her thoughts about the malting industry and Valley Malt’s place in it.
Andrea, thanks so much for speaking with me. First off, some background on what you’re doing at Valley Malt. What percentage of the amount you’re malting is coming from the local area around you?
New England and New York State is the area that we source all of our ingredients from. Actually I just this year  had to get organic spelt from a farm in Pennsylvania, which was just because the spelt crop in New York completely tanked and we had no supply there whatsoever. But that’s a pretty small percentage of our production. We consider ourselves a regional malthouse, and so not only are we committed to sourcing within our region, which we consider New England and New York, but we also are really only interested in working with breweries from the region as well. Tends to kind of keep it all tied in with each other.
You opened in 2010. What have been your biggest obstacles from then to now? What keeps you up at night?
Keeping up with the demand is a challenge. There’s a lot of demand for local malt, and we just don’t have the supply or the production size to really meet that need. It doesn’t look like we’re going to have too much of a problem this year, but last year we had real problems with supply in that it was just a really rough year for grains, so we couldn’t really see the quality we wanted from anywhere. Having this regional approach means that we’re hoping that if we have a bad crop out of western New York, maybe we’ll have a good crop out of Aroostook Maine, or something like that. But last year was kind of across the board bad- all of it. Se we just debated what to do and we just tried to work as well as we could with what we had. But it definitely posed a lot of challenges, and we had to dump a lot of batches. It was stressful, trying to make good malt out of less-than-ideal barley.
That’s great that meeting the demand is the issue, rather than lack of demand.
It is. It’s really great. But it is stressful. I mean we have a six week turn-around or something like that, with people putting in orders. But, you know, I had a brewer today that wanted 700 pounds by Friday. Somebody that I really like and respect, and I want to give him malt whenever he wants malt, but I can’t do it because I’ve got other people that have been waiting for six weeks. Even homebrewers that just want to come and pick up fifty pounds, I just literally don’t even have it. Our inventory is that tight. So it’s a great position to be in, in terms of not having to worry about that aspect of things, but that is one of the things I thought of when you phrased the question “what keeps you up at night?”
I read that you increased your capacity in the last year, and are doing about four tons a week now.
We’re doing about six now because we put in a floor malting area.
In going from malting two tons a week to four, and now from four to six, have you noticed any advantages in terms of economy of scale, productivity increases? Is it four times as much work to do four tons versus one, or is it about the same?
I can answer that question in four words: finally making a profit. Not crazy, but no longer like, why are we working so hard to make money, and having to work a day job to subsidize a second job. It’s not crazy, but we’re getting by and each able to pull a modest salary from the malt house and have two part-time employees. And definitely getting to that four tons a week just helps makes everything work. The only thing that really went up was the cost of goods, the utilities and the grain. But everything else just about stayed the same. That was the magic right there.
Is there a temptation now to expand further, having seen the benefit of that, or are you happy where you’re at size-wise for the time being?
We’re not making the kind of money that even comes close to what we were making at our day jobs, before we started malting. So to get back to that middle-class living standard, we would need to get bigger. And the demand is there. Increasing our capacity to ten tons a week or even twenty tons a week would still make us practically nano. Another malt house, a big malt house, they’re doing two hundred tons in one batch, and they might be doing four batches a day. So even if we would be able to do ten or twenty tons a week, that would be five or ten percent of what one batch is at a bigger malt house.
What we’ve kinda committed to is that we would only grow if the local supply is there., which takes time. Now that we’re an established business, people, farmers trust us, the ones that we’re working with. Then those people talk positively about us, and then other farmers are willing to try.
And then another big thing is that New York State passed a farm brewery license, which has created this demand for New York State grown malt. And so there’s other little malt houses popping up. And then there are farmers that are hearing about this law, thinking, “Oh, I’m gonna just grow barley and hope that a brewer wants to buy it,” not knowing that it needs to get malted. That opens up the supply side for us. Because not only do we have a handful of farmers that we contract with, but then beyond their supply we have maybe another five farmers that out of the blue came out and had barley for us this year. We kinda saw that happening last year, but then we had that terrible growing season. So now we’re seeing this progress happening, that hopefully in the next year or two we will feel more comfortable getting to say ten tons a week or something like that. Because we think that we would be able to have a supply to meet that production.
The only other option would be getting grain from farther away, which personally I wouldn’t want to do it, and I also don’t think that brewers would be willing to pay for it. I think part of what we’re making is something that has identity from here. So we’re really trying to have growth based on what we personally can handle as a family and still be sane at the end of the day, and also what that local supply can provide.
I know that you are a farm as well. What all do you have going on in that department?
We’re farming about a hundred acres this year, mostly growing barley. This year  we grew barley, wheat, and then other rotations, because we’re really trying to pay attention to soil health and organic rotations. So we’re doing sunflowers, soybeans, dry beans, a complete cover crop of clover, and popcorn, and we’re rotating with organic vegetables. One field that we had as barley last year, then was in clover for a full year after the barley, and now is butternut squash this year. We’re trading out land with a farmer to do that.
Did you work with any apiarists for the clover fields at all? Did you get some honey out of that?
Actually, we do have somebody who keeps bees on our main farm property here, and so far the nicest tasting honey that we’ve gotten is from the sunflowers. I don’t think the clover really supplies a whole lot. We’re learning a whole lot about bees from this guy, and it seems that the big pollinators are trees and stuff like that.
One of the things I’m trying to figure out with these articles about the malt supply, not just from you but with everything I’m looking at, is “How did we get here?” What is so advantageous about having these giant corporations do the malting for us?
The very simple answer to your question is that we have these big malt houses supplying these small brewers because over the last hundred years- or a few decades at least- there were no craft brewers. There were just big breweries. Basically we’ve hit a point now where craft brewing is not just a bump on the radar. Twenty-five percent of the malt supply in the U.S. goes to craft brewers. So now craft brewers, especially some of the bigger ones- Sierra Nevada and Bell’s and New Belgium- they’re starting to demand more from their maltsters. So that’s the moment right now.
There’s a white paper that the Brewer’s Association put out in June [of 2014] about the malt supply. It points out six “gaps” in the current malt supply. And it’s flavor, geography, [free amino nitrogen content, diastatic enzyme power, scale, and custom contracting]. I really think that it’s just one of those things that’s been the way it is because that’s the way it is and now things are changing. So it’s all very exciting and revolutionary but really it’s more just about the marketplace demanding and the supply catching up.
That pretty well answers what my next questions was going to be, which is what was it about 2010 that made it seem like it would work? Whereas somebody in 2000 saying, “hey, I want to make an all-Massachusetts beer and I can’t find any malt, maybe I should launch a malt house,” maybe in 2000 or 1990 that question had a very different answer than it did in 2010.
I guess the local food movement maybe was around but really starting coming out. I mean, when did Michael Pollen write The Omnivoire’s Dilemma? Probably around 2006 or 2007 [it was published in August 2007]. I feel like local food, ten or fifteen years ago probably wasn’t as much of a thing. If somebody tried to do this in 2000, what would have happened? Because even something like social media wasn’t around in 2000. Just think of what social media does for little businesses like ours. We don’t even have to do anything, just people who buy our stuff or drink our stuff can tweet about us, which is great, you know? I don’t even know our Twitter account password, but yet people tweet about us.
As a homebrewer, I’ve brewed with your stuff, but I know that a huge percentage of what you do is for craft brewers. Beyond the amount that we buy at a time, have you noticed any difference in terms of what homebrewers are asking for versus craft brewers, or are they kinda just the same thing on a bigger scale?
Honestly it’s hard to hit the right groove with homebrewers. We really only found one homebrew shop where it works. It’s just hard, because if you just want a couple of bags, how do you put that on a pallet? Logistically it’s hard. So we actually don’t really do much with homebrewers, I would say. It’s just so much easier to ship out a pallet of like 2500 pounds to a brewery, versus messing around with like fifty pounds of this, fifty pounds of that.
And also we found, when it goes to a homebrew shop, we don’t know how long it’s going to sit there, how it’s going to be treated, whether it’s going to end up with bugs in it. At least we know when we’re shipping to a brewery, it’s there the next day, so if there’s something wrong with it, we can look at what we did wrong.
I read that you got into malting because you wanted to make local beer. Do you get to make beer much, running a malt house full-time? Do you get to brew at all?
No. Like maybe twice a year I get to go brew a beer at a brewery, just there to help, you know, shovel out the grains. But no, I’m not brewing anything. I mean we would love to have a little pilot brewery at the malt house, but the economics of that are just not there.
Can you suggest any resources for someone interested in finding out more about the state and history of the malting industry?
Check out the website for The Craft Maltsters Guild, at www.craftmalting.com. It’s a great homepage for craft malting, and there are links there to resources, books recommended to read, and that kind of thing. And I actually just got in the mail today my first copy of a book that was just published called The Craft Maltster’s Handbook, which is pretty exciting. The fact that someone went out of their way to write a book about craft malting just shows that we’re becoming a legitimate industry, even though there’s only a handful of us. There are dozens of people in the planning stages of starting a malthouse.
And I know that the Brewers Association is coming out with a book on malt, which should be really cool, really great. John Mallett from Bell’s Brewery is the author. [Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse (Brewing Elements) is now available on Amazon].
Also, just to plug, we have an annual barley fest in October, if you were at our website you probably saw that. And then we also have our farmer-brewer winter weekend in January, which is a great hands-on, immersive experience in other farming and the malting, and the brewing side of the craft malting world.
These articles exploring the global malt supply all grew out of a thought I had one brewday. It occurred to me that the batch I was brewing used ingredients from three different continents, and something about that felt off. Or, at least, something about brewing from the whole planet stood in contradiction to one of my core beliefs about food and beer, namely that they should be sourced locally as much as possible.
What I found is that the supply chain that feeds the brewing industry is as immense as it is opaque. Tracking a single kernel of barley from field to malthouse to kettle to class is something that simply cannot be done. The malting industry is based on economies of scale, on the movement of huge masses of ingredients from place to place, largely in service to the giant international brewers that have dominated the brewing industry over the past half-century. Small, local, craft maltsters like Valley Malt make a great counterpoint to the rest of the industry.
Homebrewers and craft brewers today have unprecedented access to a whole world of high-quality brewing ingredients. And that’s a good thing, but it does come with a cost. It’s important for us to consider that cost, even as we’re choosing to pay it. As Andrea put it, “It can be really cool to brew a beer with ingredients from three continents, but it would also be nice to be able to say you brewed something from your hometown or your state.”
Many thanks to Andrea for taking time out of her busy production schedule to answer my questions. The white paper from the Brewers Association that she mentioned is available at http://www.brewersassociation.org/news/brewers-association-publishes-malting-barley-characteristics-for-craft-brewers/