A Malt Pioneer Is Revolutionizing How New England Craft Brewers Think About Their Grains

Matt Osgood A Malt Pioneer Is Revolutionizing How New England Craft Brewers Think About Their Grains

5 minute Read

In the greenwashed ecosystem of conscientious consumption, few words are as bastardized as “local.” Your Stumptown coffee might be locally roasted, but the beans weren’t grown in Oregon or New York. The way we use the word seems disingenuous.

Can a neighborhood brewery call itself “local,” then, if few, if any, of its ingredients are sourced locally?

This isn’t nitpicking. Craft beer prides itself on being a member of its community, yet many ingredients travel a considerable distance before they reach their final destination in your beer glass.

Andrea Stanley of Valley Malt, a craft malt house in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, is devoting herself to changing that. Valley Malt creates malt beloved by brewers because not only is it fresh and cultivated with care, but also because those two characteristics are evident in the malt’s quality. She is creating new markets for local farmers for whom climate change is a real concern.

“I’m not motivated by money,” Stanley says. “I understand the importance of making money, but for us it is about doing something unique, and pushing the conversation about what’s considered ‘local’ forward.”

Valley Malt immediately attracted the attentions of discerning brewers.

“By using locally malted grains, Andrea has reestablished geographic locality and taken it a step further,” Ben Roesch of Wormtown Brewery in Worcester, Mass., says. Wormtown uses at least one Massachusetts ingredient in every beer it produces, and has been a Valley Malt customer since 2010. According to Roesch, Valley Malt “redefined local.”

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In 2008, Stanley moved from Boston to Hadley, a town in western Massachusetts not far from where she grew up. She and her husband Christian, a mechanical engineer, felt a gravitational pull to make some contribution to the local food economy.

Originally, the Stanleys figured the best vehicle for that was fruit and vegetables grown out of the fertile Connecticut River-fed soil. “I wasn’t thinking about grains, even though they are a huge part of our diet,” she says.

A serendipitous discovery of a local farm growing grains for bread-making changed all that. The Stanleys were homebrewers, and had been toying with the idea of starting their own brewery in an abandoned building that formerly housed a bike shop. They were intent on using just local ingredients.

Through a series of phone calls, however, Stanley discovered that brewers didn’t actually use raw grain and germinate or soak it in-house; they purchased ready-made malt. This led her to find that the closest malting house was 1,500 miles away.

The malt for “every brewery at that time was either coming from Canada, the Midwest, or England or Germany,” Stanley says. “A minimum of 1,500 miles.” The barley itself was being grown in the Midwest, meaning it traveled a couple of thousand miles to a malting house, and then a thousand more to Massachusetts.

“The miles the malt had to travel seemed crazy,” she says.

After watching YouTube videos of people malting in their kitchens in Scotland, Stanley decided to give it a try in her own kitchen. Eventually, she and Christian rented garage space and began commercially malting.

“We developed relationships with Hadley farmers by knocking on doors, asking, ‘Hey, you think you’d be interested in growing some barley?’” she laughs.

Thus, in 2010, Valley Malt was born. The brewers came calling shortly thereafter.

Andrea Stanley of Valley Malt

Courtesy of Valley Malt

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Malt — whether born out of barley, wheat, or whatever type of grain — is the canvas upon which beer is made. While the sexiest current star of the beer world is hops, and yeast can be used to significantly diversify a beer’s flavor profile, without malt there would just be hop water (and not in a good way).

That said, there remain some challenges in growing grains in the Northeast, where weather is a constant concern.

“There is a reason why so many grains are grown out in the Midwest, and a lot of that has to do with the weather out there being less variable,” Stanley explains. New England gets considerably more rain, she says.

As a result, her focus at Valley Malt is largely on winter grains, which are better suited to the tenuous weather patterns of New England. They’re more durable and resilient, and have the benefit of being surprisingly eco-friendly.

Stanley is equally confident in the crop’s ability to withstand climate change on the grander scale.

“Mother Nature has given barley what it needs to survive these rapid changes in our climate,” she says, and notes that the United State Department of Agriculture keeps a seed bank of all the grains to help sustain the agriculture moving forward. “It’s a matter of finding varieties that are going to be resilient in every climate,” she says.

Another key factor toward the understanding of malt, wherever it’s grown, has been the recent creation of the language of malt. The American Society of Brewing Chemists noticed an absence of language around malt, so it created the Base Malt Flavor Map, which helps maltsters like Stanley — and the brewers with whom she works — identify flavors, both good and bad, in a universal lexicon.

And so while hops and yeast (and to an extent water) may appear on the marquee, it’s the malt that provides the foundation upon which a great beer is created, and growers and brewers are becoming more educated in the science and agriculture of the grains they use.

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Wormtown Brewery’s Roesch and Matthew Steinberg, owner of Exhibit ‘A’ Brewing Company in Framingham, Mass., are among Valley Malt’s most passionate devotees. Stanley calls them her “anchor breweries.”

Before Valley Malt, Roesch had been frustrated by hearing so many breweries self-identify as “local.” There had to be more to the ethos than people drinking in places close to where they lived. He reached out to Valley Malt and brewed with the company’s first batch of malt.

“There have been multiple evolutions of our relationship after that first batch,” said Roesch. “In order to really have the commitment to ‘local,’ we felt we had to do more than just a couple batches a year.”

Wormtown started using Valley Malt for 5 percent of its annual production. What makes that figure even more impressive is that Wormtown has more than tripled its production since it began working with Valley Malt. As Wormtown scaled up its production, so did Valley Malt.

“The piece that I really love is that I’m talking directly to the producer,” Roesch says. “With Valley Malt, I get on the phone or go to their house, and have a conversation on how to improve our beer.”

Steinberg, who refers to Stanley as a “buddy,” adds that those conversations happen “all the time, after we talk about our kids.”

“I don’t pretend for a moment we’re buying from suppliers,” Steinberg says. “We are buying from people we care about. We have similar long-term goals, whether it’s ecological, support for local, our approach to customer service, and quality.”

Ultimately, as much as New England brewers might personally like Stanley, and they do, their commitment is predicated on the caliber of Valley Malt’s product, not personal biases.

“They’re known for quality,” Roesch said. “There’s no point in moving on [to another supplier] unless there’s a lacking, and there isn’t from Valley Malt.”

“Local is important, but it doesn’t supersede quality,” Steinberg says, adding that Valley Malt is “focused on quality first and foremost. There’s so much care for the product. If they could get me all the supplies I needed, they would be my sole supplier.”

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As craft beer continues to evolve, with some small and mid-sized breweries prioritizing regional over national growth, the future of malt (and beer) resides on the micro scale. While big malt houses face consistency and space concerns, smaller producers like Valley Malt can push biodiversity further by being experimental with their malts. This, according to Steinberg, “gives the beer its soul.”

“We have to be more dynamic,” Stanley says of the industry. “We have to be able to evolve.”

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