“The great thing about working with craft maltsters...is that I see craft beer in what they’re doing,” Oskar Blues Director of Brewing Tim Matthews told me recently. In our chat, Matthews revealed just how widely he’d been exploring the world of malt. He also demonstrated how important the burgeoning craft malt marketplace is for Oskar Blues, as breweries like them strive to find the point of difference that will help them to stand out in an increasingly competitive beer industry.
For the past four years Matthews has worked together with seed developers, farmers, and maltsters in an effort to improve the way his team works with malt. The culmination of these efforts was Beerito, a Mexican-style Lager released earlier this year. It’s only when you turn the can to its side that you see the words “brewed with Colorado sourced craft malts.”
That malt is called Blue Ballad, a dark, Munich-style malted barley, that’s produced by a craft maltster based in Fort Collins called Troubadour Maltings. Only a small amount is used in Beerito, but that’s because Troubadour is hand-producing batches of malt just five tons at a time. That’s a batch size around 20 times smaller than a large commercial malster, such as Crisp in the UK. And that’s not even taking into account how frequently they’re able to produce a batch.
Despite only making up a small part of the Beerito recipe, Blue Ballad adds a significant amount of color and character to the beer. It imparts a crimson hue that is complemented by notes of turbinado sugar and toasted almonds on the palate. Matthews can trace the grain sourced from Troubadour from field to can, giving the beer its very own sense of terroir. In fact, it might’ve made more sense to call it it a Colorado-style Lager instead.
Troubadour is one of almost 50 craft maltsters that have begun cropping up in the U.S. over the past decade. Like many craft breweries, some of these maltsters are looking to grow and compete on an industrial scale. But there are also businesses like Troubadour, who are focusing on flavor as opposed to volume, companies that are remarkably similar in a business sense to your local brewpub or sandwich shop. These small businesses are changing the way brewers think about malt and proving that there’s still plenty of room for craft beer to evolve, even if it’s just one five-ton batch at a time.
Troubadour co-founder Chris Schooley met his business-partner-to-be, Steve Clark, because their eldest daughters attended the same elementary school in Fort Collins. Clark worked in the pharmaceutical industry and, like many beer lovers in Fort Collins, is an avid home brewer. Schooley had spent the best part of a decade working in coffee, which included a stint at Intelligentsia in Chicago and later for home-roasting supply company Sweet Maria’s.
Working in third-wave coffee taught Schooley the value of transparency—how talking about a product’s provenance can enhance its inherent desirability to a consumer. He’d also learned the value of having conversations with your customers. How, if you sit down with them for a few minutes, you’ll soon learn they appreciate that. It was a chat that occurred during some coffee beer tastings he led that sent Schooley on the path to malt. From there, he started thinking about the parallels between coffee and malted barley.
“Talk to a brewer and they’ll tell you that the most fun part of making a coffee beer is tasting all the different elements and making a decision on your findings,” he says. “Coffee beers are cool, but there’s got to be more to where these collaborations lie and more interest to that.”
That was his “lightbulb moment,” the instance where he realized there was an opportunity to work with malt the same way he’d been working with coffee, from sourcing to roasting. Except instead of traveling to farms in El Salvador and Costa Rica, Schooley envisioned he could connect breweries with farms less than 10 miles away for malt.
One day not long after that, he went to Clark’s house to pick up his daughter. Knowing he was an all-grain homebrewer, he posed a few simple questions. “I asked Steve, ‘As a homebrewer, would you pay a premium price if you knew X, Y, and Z about your malts? If you knew where it came from and that it was done in a small batch and that it was special and unique? Would that be worth paying more for?” Schooley says.
Clark responded by pulling a business plan from his back pocket. He was thinking of working in beer, too. But the greater Fort Collins area already had 24 breweries spread between a population of just 150,000. The pair realized that if they wanted to enter the beer industry on their own terms, they’d need to diversify.
“Right away we just kind of clicked,” Schooley says of Clark. “We’d go off on our own ways and give ourselves some homework and then we’d do some research on equipment and materials. ‘Where do you get seed? Where do you process?’ Stuff like that.”
Schooley and Clark were surprised that, despite the prevalence of craft breweries in town, there wasn’t already an existing business producing malt. Their expectation was that someone would eventually come along with a similar idea and beat them to the punch. But no one did.
“It finally got to a point a couple of years into it where we were like, ‘Nobody’s done it yet!’” Schooley says. “Which is ridiculous. We’d be idiots not to jump into this, because there really is an opportunity.”
Every report that Schooley had read during his research told him the same story—producing malt on a commercial scale was only viable if made in extremely large quantities. By working with smaller coffee producers, Schooley had seen evidence that suggested to him that small-scale malting could be viable. There were other major hurdles too, such as developing relationships with growers and finding a variety of malting barley that wasn’t already owned by someone else.
Then, as if fate dictated it, Limagrain Ceral Seeds, a European seed-development company, opened its U.S. headquarters in Fort Collins. A chance meeting in the taproom at Fort Collins brewery Pateros Creek connected Schooley with the folks at Limagrain. He discovered they were developing a new barley variety for the U.S. market called Genie. Not only was Limagrain able to provide the fledgling Troubadour Maltings with access to a barley variety, but they were also able to put Clark and Schooley in touch with a local farmer, Greg Walker. Gradually, a chain was forming that would grant Troubadour not just access to raw materials, but the level of traceability desired in its products.
“Working with Troubadour has been more personable compared to a larger maltings, because we’re both working on growing a new market for their malt and my barley crop,” Walker says. He says he’s also seeing an increasing demand for his barley from craft maltsters as more and more brewers seek to add diversity to their grain stocks.
At Oskar Blues, Tim Matthews and his team are certainly taking advantage of this. In fact, since Troubadour established itself in 2014, the Longmont, CO-based brewery has become one of its biggest customers. When I arrive to meet Clark and Schooley, they’re busy loading up a truck with Blue Ballad, ready to be shipped to Oskar Blues’ Brevard, NC facility.
“I found that an inclusion of malt from Troubadour [in Beerito] both enhanced the flavor and was economically feasible,” Matthews says. “It’s maybe not the best way to make a beer. There’s cheaper malt out there, but when you believe in something, you find a way to bring that into the fold.”
Matthews makes an important point: malt is often the most expensive ingredient used in the brewing process. Schooley and Clark’s biggest challenge will be convincing brewers many times smaller than Oskar Blues that spending almost twice as much on craft malt is a worthwhile investment.
But some don't even need convincing. For Travis Kauffman of Brooklyn’s Folksbier, the value of working with a maltster like Troubadour outweighs the extra costs incurred by using small batch raw materials.
“Being able to talk to the maltster is amazing. Chris was able to enlighten us about many technical details regarding the malt and helped inform how we made beer with it,” Kauffman says. “In the future, we hope to collaborate more and may even have him develop malt to our specifications. That kind of collaboration is really the best-case scenario for any of our raw ingredients.”
The North American Craft Maltsters Guild, of which Schooley sits on the board, was formed in 2013 to create a support system for all the small malting operations that were opening up across the country. According to their figures, there were just six U.S. craft maltsters operating in 2006. There are now 49, and nine of those opened in 2016 alone. These figures are even more impressive when you consider there isn’t even a manufacturer of small scale malting equipment in the United States—producers having to repurpose equipment from other industries to get started.
The majority of American malt production is controlled by a small number of very large companies such as Malteurop and Great Western. The formation of these small, independent maltsters in the face of market dominance from large corporations should come as no surprise. It’s exactly the same conditions that caused craft beer to emerge in the first place. There’s a likelihood that producers of small batch, American malt could hold these business in a similar contempt as craft brewers hold multinationals. Schooley, however, prefers to remain diplomatic about this.
“I can't speak for everyone, but I can see how for some folks it's hard not to hold a view of contempt from this current vantage point,” he says. “My hope is that there are opportunities for maltsters of all sizes to foster a thriving community like the one you see within the [Master Brewers Association of America].”
The Craft Maltsters Guild was formed to protect and support its members interests, much like the Brewers Association does for breweries, even going as far to define “craft malt.” Jackie Billings is the Guild’s executive director.
“You go to your neighborhood brewpub and drink a beer made with local hops, wild yeast, and imported malt,” she says. “That doesn't make any sense. Ten years ago, a completely local pint was impossible. Craft maltsters have recognized a real gap in the supply chain and are moving in to fill it.”
Billings is also quick to reiterate the point that craft brewers are constantly searching for that point of difference. For many brewers, working with craft maltsters is that fresh ground they’ve been looking to break. These relationships are also establishing links in the production chain that might not have previously existed in the modern brewing era.
“Craft malt allows brewers to have a direct relationship with their maltster—maybe even their farmers,” Billings says. “It allows brewers the opportunity to pick up the telephone and call the person who actually malted their grain, be it to troubleshoot problems, ask questions, or collaborate on interesting projects.”
It’s also worth recognizing the work being done in seed development and how the emergence of craft malting is opening the market for new barley varieties. The beer industry has been relying on heritage varieties such as Maris Otter—which is tough to grow and leads to poor yields—for more than 50 years. This is purely because it’s the barley brewers demand. The emergence of craft maltsters is connecting brewers with farmers like never before. If brewers are able understand the nature of seed genetics, farming, and malting, then the market conditions for all parties and the quality of their product will improve.
Zach Gaines formerly worked for Anheuser-Busch, including on its own barley-breeding program in Fort Collins. He’s now the technical and marketing manager for Limagrain Cereal Seeds. “The genetics provider sits in the first position in a supply chain where a single raw material changes hands four times,” he says. “We have an opportunity to put the rest of these players in a position to maximize their success.”
Gaines is also quick to point out that, in the age of local, if a brewer can source premium ingredients from small and local suppliers, this will often further strengthen their standing in the eyes of consumers. And Clark and Schooley are fully taking advantage of their position within a healthy local marketplace. It’s one thing to say this beer is locally brewed, but another entirely to point at a field and say, “that’s where our malted barley comes from.”
Troubadour’s nearest customer, Horse & Dragon Brewing Company, sits on the same trading estate, just a couple of hundred yards away from the malting house. Head brewer Linsey Cornish is one of several local brewers working with the craft maltster.
“By supporting and using Troubadour malt we are closing the loop of farm to glass,” Cornish says. “On a product level, we benefit from being able to discuss what we want out of our malts and be a part of the product design.”
Being able to order custom made malts for specific beers is a huge advantage for small brewers, but it comes at a premium. “The main disadvantage in using craft malt is cost,” Cornish says. “However, with any quality product that is part of the deal. Craft malting gives us the hands-on ability to mold the characteristics of malts to create specific flavor attributes. We have seen this with hops for years, and now malt, the heart of all beer, is getting the attention it deserves too.”
Troubadour has successfully added to a busy local brewing community, to the point where even brewery tours stop by the malthouse as they buzz past the likes of Horse & Dragon, Funkwerks, and Odell. The importance of this isn’t lost on Schooley.
“All the money that consumers are spending on craft beer, if that can be traced all the way back to local agriculture in a big scale way,” he says. “I mean, that’s a game changer!”