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What’s in your Glass? The Burgeoning Local Beer Industry

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2012 October Issue Newsletter

By Mindy Harris, Public Relations Coordinator

Valley Malt BSA

 In 2010, Andrea and Christian Stanley decided to give the locavore food movement a boost by opening up their own malt company – Valley Malt, located in Hadley, MA. While the micro-craft brew craze continues to grow in the Northeast, local barley and hops production struggle to keep up with the demand for these key beer ingredients. Malt companies, which sprout and roast the barley necessary to make beer, are even more scarce in this region than grain growers. Malt is currently sourced from the Midwest, England, and other parts of this country. Valley Malt, the only malt company in Massachusetts, has stepped in to fill a void, and they understand that creating true local beer will require a systemic change that will involve a number of different stakeholders including growers, malters, and brewers. Andrea sees this venture as a partnership effort.

The Stanleys moved to the Pioneer Valley from Cambridge just a few years before starting Valley Malt. Both husband and wife had non-food careers. Christian is a Mechanical Engineer, and Andrea worked in the world of education with special needs students. But as long-time homebrewers and beer the Stanleys started investigating the feasibility of opening up their own brewery, and growing grain in the valley. They had heard about a local grain CSA, and so the beer connection started to make sense. As Andrew put it “In the Pioneer Valley, you are surrounded by farms. There’s great inspiration all around us to participate in developing our local food movement.” While Valley Malt products are not certified organic, the farms that grow for them are largely organic. The Stanleys are committed to sustainable practices in their own grain growing, and try to work within an unofficial organic framework.

In 2010, after a trip to the Northeast Grain Growers Association conference in Vermont, plans were put into place to help farmers grow grain for the emerging Valley Malt. Valley Malt purchased seed for their partner-growers to get started – an indication it was serious about supporting growers and assuming some of the risk of crop investment. And with a small, hand-crafted malt house that was outfitted largely by equipment designed by Christian, Valley Malt created its first batch of malted barley. In October of 2010, they were able to start malting 1 ton per week – which to consumers sounds like a lot of grain, but by beer industry standards is a very small amount. It was just enough to be in production. However, they knew that in order to sustain their business, they were going to have to grow their volume quickly. When they started, there was a terrific learning curve because malt production at the micro-level is almost impossible to find. Most malt companies produce enormous quantities of malt, and so the equipment in the industry is designed accordingly. So the Stanleys were faced with the operational challenge of constructing their own equipment, and setting up their own mechanical parameters as they went. It is probably reasonable to say that the Stanleys are not only jumping in to help promote the use of local grain at local breweries, but they are in fact pioneering a new micro-malting industry. The product that Valley Malt sells most readily is their 2-row pale malt. They have also found that wheat grows very well in New England, and their wheat product has a complex character not found in wheat sourced/grown in the Midwest. Local brewers seem to be very happy with Valley Malt wheat.

In addition to direct sales, Valley Malt established an innovative BSA program – Brewery Supported Agriculture. The BSA program encourages local brewers to invest in their grain farmers, who then produce the grain, malted at Valley Malt, which ends up in a local beer. The brewery pays capital upfront to the grain farmers, just like with a food CSA program, and thus accept some of the growing risk. In 2011, it was a very soggy and wet growing season. So many grain growers had a failed crop. In the case of the BSA program, some brewers lost investment. However, this year has been a very good grain-growing season, and most breweries understand the value of their investment, and have stayed onboard. This past week, Notch brewery held a launch party for the beer they created with their BSA grain. The company is so enthusiastic about this partnership that they even branded their beer variety: Notch Valley Malt BSA – a limited release fall & winter farmhouse ale.

Valley Malt is now up to 4 pounds of malt per week, and they sell to many well-known and successful brew houses in Massachusetts, NY and the general Northeast, including Notch, Wormtown, Peak Organic, Allagash and Dogfish Head, among others. They also sell grain to local distilleries of hard liquor also looking to utilize ingredients produced in this area. One of the challenges Andrea finds is not on the customer end – Valley Malt has been able to move all of their product to brew companies, and the demand is only increasing. The challenge is on the grower-side, and so Valley Malt wants to encourage farmers to get into the business of growing grain for beer. With the production of grain comes the challenge of storage. Because grain is a dry commodity crop which can last a number of years if it is stored with the proper moisture level, finding places to put these newly grown tons of local grains is one of the ongoing logistical issues faced by Valley Malt. Farmers don’t tend to use silos on farms here in MA anymore. If farms have silos, they are usually edifices from a generation past, which need revamping in order to be used. Some of Valley Malt’s work partnering with farms and growers therefore includes a certain technical assistance and advising on storage development. But Andrea has found that many farmers are very pleased to be participating in growing a crop that will end up in local beer. The endeavor has a certain cache which many farmers like. Malted barley has a certain sexiness as a product. As the company moves forward, its goal is not to grow much larger, but to refine its product, and to continue supporting the overall development of local beer and grain.

Valley Malt will be offering a workshop at the upcoming NOFA/Mass Winter Conference at Worcester State University in January. We encourage farmers investigating the possibility of growing grain to attend, along with beer enthusiasts. Support the breweries that buy from local farmers, and invest in the re-development of New England grain!

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