Growing local – A visit to Rustic Brew Farms

Craft brewers have benefited from the eat/drink/buy local movement as much as anyone. There’s something that feels right about having a pint of beer in the place where it was made, sometimes even served to you by the person who brewed it. While frequenting local breweries undeniably helps support the local economy, it doesn’t boost your locavore cred as much as you might think. The ingredients used to make that super fresh IPA were probably grown on the other side of the continent, if not the globe.  It wasn’t always that way, in the 19th century the great lakes region was an important producer of both malted barley and hops.  Given the burgeoning craft beer industry of the 21st century, can we expect to see a return to those days?  Slowly but surely local providers are starting to appear, although small scale hop growers have proliferated much faster than craft maltsters.  The Ohio Hop Growers Guild boasts over 70 members, but there are only two fully operating malt houses in Ohio—Rustic Brew Farms north of Marysville, and Haus Malts in Cleveland.  To get a better feel for the process, prospects, and challenges of small-scale malting I paid a visit to Rustic Brew Farms last month.

RBF_Malt Bag

The Back Story

Founded in 2015, Rustic Brew Farms is owned and operated by Matt Cunningham, an OSU graduate, family man, and all around likeable guy, whose day job is farming 2600 acres of corn and soybeans with his father.  Cunningham not only malts barley grown on the family farm, he also maintains small hopyard.  For the first two years of operation malting was done on a home-built pilot system capable of handling 500 or so pounds of grain per batch.  While that might sound like a respectable amount it’s not enough malt to make a single batch of beer at a mid-size brewery, like Land Grant or North High. This year Cunningham decided to step up his game, investing $300,000 in a custom built system capable of malting 4000 pounds of grain per batch.

Cunningham’s farm and malting facility are located north of Marysville, Ohio, roughly a 45-minute drive from my house in Clintonville.  Much of the drive cuts through the northwestern suburbs of Columbus, but the last leg is unquestionably farm country.  As I leave Marysville behind, fields of corn and soybeans, bathed in the warm glow of early morning sunlight, stretch out on both sides of the highway.  As I approach the last turn in my journey there’s no malting tower, large grain silo, or signage of any type to indicate my GPS has me on the right track, just an old wooden sign pointing the way to God’s Country Church.  The god I believe in surely appreciates a freshly brewed pilsner, so I take that as a sign that I’m on the right track. Before long I turn into a well-maintained gravel driveway that leads to the house where the Cunningham family lives.  The “malt house” is located in a modestly sized metal pole barn that sits a hundred or so yards further back from the road.  As I approach Matt emerges and greets me with a firm handshake.  After exchanging pleasantries, we head inside for my first look at a malting facility.

Malthouse Rustic Brew Farms
The malting at Rustic Brew Farms takes place inside this white barn.

Malting Primer

Before we get too far into the tour I ask Matt to walk me through the malting process.  I’ll do my best to recap my crash course, augmented by a fair bit of material I had to look up to fill in the holes in my hastily scribbled notes.

The goal of malting is to convert the starch reserves stored in the kernels of grain into sugars. To achieve this goal the maltster must first trick the grain into thinking it’s time for the seeds to start growing, and then halt that process before the barley has a chance to grow. This is done in three steps—steeping, germinating, and kilning.

The first step is to steep the grain in water for 2-4 days.  This raises the moisture content of the grain to 44-48% of its total mass, activating enzymes in the barley that initiate the conversion of starches to sugars. The steeping phase consists of alternating periods of underwater immersion with aeration, and dry resting periods with ventilation passing through the grain. Once most of the kernels have started to sprout, the water is drained off for the final time and the steeping process is terminated.

The next phase is to let enzymes in the barley catalyze biochemical reactions that convert complex carbohydrates and proteins to sugars.  This phase, called germination, lasts anywhere from 4 to 7 days.  The temperature and humidity must be carefully controlled during the germination phase.  The chemical reactions that are taking place within the seeds generate a significant amount of heat, so that when malting grain on the multi-ton scale the maltster’s primary concern is keeping the temperature from rising too high.  This is done by blowing cool, humidified air through the barley.  This process also provides oxygen that is consumed during the biochemical transformation, while carrying away CO2 that is generated by those same reactions.  As the barley germinates the rootlets of the sprouting seeds tend to intertwine as they grow, which if left unchecked leads to matted, tangled clumps of grain. In traditional floor malting the barley is spread out on a large floor that is periodically raked to prevent the rootlets from tangling. In a large-scale malting facility a combination of forced air blown up through the floor and vertically oriented, rotating helical screws continuously turn the grain to detangle the rootlets.

When the once hard kernels become soft enough to crush with your fingers, and most of the rootlets are about the length of a seed, the germination process has run its course.  At this stage, the maltster intervenes to halt the natural process before the growing plant consumes its sugar reserves.  This is done by blowing hot air through the grain to lower the moisture content down to 4-5%,.  The timing of the kilning step is critical. If done too early not all of the starch will have been converted to sugar, leading to undermodified malts. If done too late the plant will have begun to consume the sugar lowering the yield.  The temperature of the air used for drying determines the type of malt, with higher temperatures leading to darker malts. Pilsner malts, the palest of malts, are dried with 180°F (82°C) air, while darker base malts like Vienna are dried with 250°F (121°C) air.

pilot malting syste_RBF
The pilot malting system at Rustic Brew Farms that was used prior to the upgrade.

A Unique Approach to Malting

When designing his new system Cunningham took inspiration from an old method called drum malting, first developed by the French maltster Nicholas Galland in the 1880s.  As the name implies germination takes place in a large drum that slowly rotates (~3 revolutions per hour) to gently tumble the grain while it germinates [1]. While drum malting doesn’t lend itself to the large scale malting, where batch sizes can approach 600 tonnes, it’s a viable alternative for small scale craft maltsters.  At Rustic Brew Farms the drum is not continuously rotated, instead it is rotated at the relatively brisk pace of 1 rpm for five minutes twice daily to break up the tangled rootlets.

Malting Drum
This stainless steel malting drum, fabricated in nearby Plain City, is the heart of the new malting system.

In a typical malt house steeping is done in one vessel, and the grain is transferred to a different area for the germination and kilning steps.  Cunningham’s pilot system operated on this principle, but it was very labor intensive because the wet grains had to be manually transferred between the two vessels.  The prospect of transferring two tons of wet grain one 5 gallon bucket at a time on a larger system was not an enticing one.  This led Cunningham to a moment of inspiration, why not carry out all three stages of the malting process in the same vessel?  This would eliminate the transfer step, simplify the process, and reduce chances for contamination.  To accomplish this, he had the germination/kilning drum fit with a false bottom so that when rotated to the correct position the steeping water could be drained while leaving the grain behind. The downside of this approach is that steeping of one batch cannot be carried out in parallel with germination and kilning of the previous batch.  While this limits production capacity, it seems like a good tradeoff for a one person malting facility run by a maltster with a full-time day job.

Malting Drum End Shot
An end view of the malting drum at Rustic Brew Farms.  

Growing Barley in Ohio

You can’t make malts without barley, which as it turns out is another obstacle for midwestern maltsters.  According to the Brewers Association seventy-five percent of the malting barley grown in the United States is produced in five states—Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Washington, and Minnesota.  Western Canada, particularly Manitoba, is another big producer of malted barley.  I grew up in Idaho, and I can recall riding in the combine with my grandfather during the barley harvest back in the 1970s. I also have vague memories from my late teenage years of Anheuser-Busch constructing a large-scale malting facility in Idaho Falls.

While the amount of barley grown for malting in Ohio is miniscule, a few hundred acres compared to over 600,000 acres in states like Idaho and Montana, Cunningham’s day job as a farmer gives Rustic Brew Farms a leg up on the competition.  As the sole supplier of barley for Rustic Brew Farms, he can plant as little or as much of whatever type of barley he chooses.

Barley can either be planted in the spring and harvested in late summer (spring barley), or planted in the fall and harvested in mid-summer (winter barley).  Cunningham attempted spring barley during his first year of operation, but encountered several challenges.  To begin with Ohio gets a lot of precipitation in the spring, which can delay planting pushing back the harvest date.  Furthermore, the hot humid days of July and August increase the moisture content and chances of disease, both undesirable outcomes for barley intended for malting.  For these reasons, Ohio’s climate is better suited for growing winter barley.

Not only is winter barley a safer bet, it provides several additional benefits to the farmer and the environment.  Because winter barley can be harvested in late June there is enough time to grow a different crop on the same ground in a given year.  After harvesting his barley this year Cunningham planted a crop of soybeans on the same plot of land.  It provides crop cover over the winter, thereby reducing erosion.  FInally, barley grown for malting requires less fertilizer than many crops, because too much fertilizer leads to nitrogen levels that are undesirably high for beer production.  For the past two years Cunningham has grown winter barley, specifically a 2-row variety called Scala.  This year he harvested 50 acres of barley. Although it’s but a tiny portion of the 2600 acre Cunningham farm, that acreage provides enough barley to keep his malting facility running at full capacity for an entire year.

Growing barley in Ohio comes with some risks.  Maltsters are fussy about their barley.  The protein levels cannot be too high (9-13% is the optimal range), the moisture content should be low (<13%), the kernels should be plump, and the seeds must be capable of germinating.  Unlike major barley producing regions, there is effectively no secondary market for barley in Ohio. Consequently, a crop that falls short of the maltsters standards must be written off as a complete loss for the farmer.

While the dry climate of western North America provides ideal conditions for growing barley, it’s not a very good match to Britain’s climate where some of the highest quality malts are produced.  According to Cunningham some people have compared Ohio-grown malts to British malts like Marris Otter, a variety highly prized for its rich flavors.  Could this be because Ohio’s climate is a closer approximation to Britain than Idaho or Montana (at least in terms of moisture and humidity)?  I’m not even remotely qualified to answer that question, but I will say that the Vienna Lager that Wolf’s Ridge brewmaster Chris Davison made earlier this year with Ohio-grown malts from Haus Malts was exquisite.

field of barley
A field of barley on the Cunningham farm (photo courtesy of Matt Cunningham).

The Brewers Perspective

Malts from Rustic Brew Farms malts have been used by 15 or so Ohio breweries, including the likes of Ill Mannered, Restoration Brew Worx, Lineage, Little Fish, Brew Bros, and Grove City Brewing; while Haus Malts products have been featured in beers from nearly 30 Ohio breweries.  However, most beers featuring Ohio malts have been one-offs.  There are three factors that potentially limit more widespread usage of Ohio malts—supply, price, and consistency.  I touched earlier on the mismatch between the output of Ohio’s nascent malting industry and the quantity of malts consumed by Ohio brewers.  From a price perspective Ohio malts are approximately twice as expensive as the malts produced by the large-scale domestic producers.  That doesn’t necessarily make it prohibitive for brewers to use local malts, because raw ingredients are but one of many costs that go into making beer, but if the drinker can’t taste the difference it’s hard to justify the use of costlier ingredients.

To get a sense for how local brewers view the nascent Ohio malting industry I reached out to two local brewers: Tom Ayers, of Ill Mannered Brewing in Powell and Sean White of Little Fish Brewing in Athens.

Ill Mannered has been a supporter of Rustic Brew Farms, featuring their malts in two beers last year (40th Pale-llel and the Russian Imperial Stout, Subterfuge). More recently they brewed a pale ale made entirely with freshly picked (wet) Cascade hops and malts from Rustic Brew Farms for their 2nd anniversary party last week.

I started by asking Tom what motivates him to work with local suppliers like Rustic Brew Farms?

Our customers always find it interesting at a one-off level to have the locally made beers.  We do one wet hop beer each year and use local hops to make that happen.  I believe in supporting a local provider who produces quality product and provides for our local community.  If the quality is there we are thrilled to use it.  Matt is always looking to improve and invest in producing better more consistent product.  That can be seen in his latest expansion.  Lastly, I think it is important to support the diversification and growth of a supply base.  While our volume is minuscule compared to larger brewers I still believe in doing what we can to grow quality providers.

Can you see it becoming something that goes beyond the occasional one-off?  What are the obstacles to achieving this?

I think it is feasible, but to be more than a one-off, several things would have to happen.  Quality and consistency need to be on point, meaning the grain is reliably the same from batch to batch and of high quality.  Economies of scale need to drive down the product costs and increase volume.  Having a large enough production base to deliver regular volumes of grain that is to spec at a reasonable price is going to be the largest obstacle to product proliferation in this industry (in my opinion).  If brewers cannot get the product with consistent regularity at a reasonable price then I don’t think you will see it proliferate.  That’s not to say the product doesn’t warrant a premium.  It is not dissimilar to the craft beer market.  If the customer demands it a product like craft beer can sell at a premium, but a vast majority of beer sold in the US is still macro-lager.  I believe there is a spot for craft malt in this industry, at what level we will have to wait and see.  In the meantime we are going to continue to support Rustic!

tom ayers_hops
Tom Ayers picks freshly harvested Cascade hops off the bine for a wet-hopped pale ale featuring hops and malts grown at Rustic Brew Farms.  Photo courtesy of Matt Cunningham.

When it comes to using local ingredients Little Fish has been at the fore of Ohio breweries from their inception.  Last year they used malts from Rustic Brew Farms in what is thought to be the first beer made entirely with Ohio ingredients since prohibition.  Not only do they incorporate local ingredients ranging from spelt to paw paws, they grow hops at the brewery and occasionally make beer with wild yeast captured on the grounds surrounding the brewery.  Who better to have a pulse on the upside of local malts.

I started by asking Sean to comment on the quality and consistency of the malts coming out of Ohio.

We regularly use Ohio-grown malt from Haus Malts, in fact it accounts for roughly 90% of the grain we buy.  From a quality standpoint it is equal to what we would get from a larger maltster.  One main difference is that due to the smaller batch size and less opportunity to blend batches, the sugar contribution can vary slightly from batch to batch.  This is easily manageable by looking at the lot analyses from each batch of grain and adding or subtracting a little malt if necessary.

Wow 90% of your grains come from Haus Malts, what quantity of Ohio malts do you go through on a monthly basis?

About 3000 pounds per month.

Given the extra price, how do you justify using such a high proportion of Ohio-grown malts?

As far as price, we were buying conventional organic malt before, so switching to Ohio grown malts did not increase the price.  It’s about equal.  Ideally we would like to work with organic Ohio malt, if it becomes available.

The GIving Tree
A pint of The Giving Tree at the Little Fish Taproom in Athens.  This farmhouse ale was made with barley, oats, sorghum syrup and spruce tips all sourced from Ohio.  This photo was taken earlier this summer.

Malts from Rustic Brew Farms are also available for purchase by homebrewers.  In my opinion, the homebrew market is one place where small-scale craft malts have a bright future.  A fifty pound bag of malt goes quite a ways when you’re homebrewing.  Plus for many the cost of the raw ingredients pales in compared to the investment of time required to make a batch of beer.  I know I would gladly pay a premium price for malts if they allow me to make a better beer.  Currently, malts from Rustic Brew Farms can be purchased at Barley Hopsters in Delaware and Listermann Brewing in Cincinnati.

Closing Thoughts

It’s hard not to root for Rustic Brew Farms.  Matt Cunningham’s enthusiasm for his craft is infectious, and his recent upgrade shows a serious level of commitment.  Local brewers seem to be happy with malts produced from Ohio-grown barley, and the few times I’ve been fortunate enough to try beers featuring Ohio malts I’ve been impressed.  Given Cunningham’s ability to control the process from planting the barley to kilning the malts there’s every reason to believe that the quality of malts coming out of Rustic Brew Farms will only improve.  I think we can expect a wider range of malts down the line as well.  Next year he plans to try his hand at malted wheat.

There are now over 200 breweries in Ohio, and if most of those breweries decide to make a few “all-Ohio” beers per year it should create enough demand to keep small-scale maltsters like Rustic Brew Farms in business.  If you add in demand from the homebrew market, it’s not hard to imagine a bright future for these area maltsters.  A world where most breweries emulate Little Fish and get the majority of their malts from Ohio is harder to envision. I don’t foresee craft malts competing with large-scale domestic malts on price anytime soon. While that’s not necessarily a deal breaker it does give some indication of how we can anticipate craft malts will be used.

By most estimates malts account for 5-10% of the total cost of a craft beer, which means that paying twice as much for malts would add $10-20 onto the price of a typical keg [2]. While not prohibitive, neither is that figure inconsequential.  Roughly speaking the financial incentives to use local malts are not so different from those associated with making a doubly dry hopped DIPA.  If the extra cost of raw ingredients leads to a product that consumers perceive as special, they will be willing to pay a little more per ounce and brewers can recoup the expense, but if it tastes like any another beer the novelty will eventually fade and craft malts will continue to occupy a small niche in the market.

DSC08158
I didn’t have space to get into the hop growing operations at Rustic Brew Farms.  I’ll have to save that for a later post, though at the moment it seems a secondary focus.  This year the cascade harvest was good, but the other varieties never got going.

References

[1] Joseph D. Hertrich, “Topics in Brewing: Malting” Master Brewers Association of the Americas, 50, 131-141 (2013).

[2] For example Land Grant’s Stiff Arm IPA uses 52 lbs of base malt per BBL, at a price of $0.46 per pound. To make the same beer with Rustic Brew Farms malts ($1.00 per pound) it would add $0.54 per pound or $28 extra dollars per barrel, or $14 per 1/2 barrel keg. Thanks to Land Grant’s Mark Richards for sharing this information with me.

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