Good Beer Hunting

Beer is Labor

Revisiting the Raw Materials — A Conversation with Mallorie King of Hop Head Farms

It didn’t take Mallorie King long to realize that homebrewing wasn’t her bag. Though the Jackson, Michigan native took an early liking to beer—Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, specifically—she quickly discovered that brewing wasn’t her idea of fun. The ingredients going into the kettle, on the other hand? Those caught her attention. 

King comes from an agricultural family. Her uncle owns a farm, and, despite having a background in English and creative writing, she hung her plans for the future on an ag-related job out West, in the East Bay. Inspired by college days spent working in farmers markets, she landed a gig with The Food Craft Institute, an Oakland organization that provides education and resources to those who want to grow their hobbies into bona fide businesses. 

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As it turned out, that was just the beginning. King, still enthralled with beer and its raw materials, worked with aspiring professional brewers, who in turn inspired her to explore the nuances of malt and hop varietals. So set out she did—way out, to the hop farms of Styria, Slovenia, while on a Fulbright scholarship. After a year abroad in Europe, she continued her career working to understand the “interplay,” as she describes it, of small-batch malts and fresh hops—first at Admiral Maltings in Alameda, and currently with Hop Head Farms who are based in Michigan. Now, as more brewers turn their attention to the ingredients side, King is there: ready and waiting to take them by the proverbial hand.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Alyssa Pereira: “When did you realize that the beer world was a place you wanted to be?”

Mallorie King: “I think I always liked chasing unique flavors—anything that felt different, for me, growing up in a very Midwestern place, made me think of bigger worlds, and places that I dreamed of going.

In Michigan, we always had really good beer available. Instead of growing up with Budweiser, I grew up with Bell’s Two Hearted. My family didn't have a taboo about alcohol, which meant that we would consume at home. Not that much, but over time I started getting really into beer with my family, and then homebrewing with my dad. But I actually realized that I didn't like the brewing process at all. This was around the time when I was in college, that hop farms started opening in Michigan, and people were setting up shop—the Michigan government was giving subsidies to growers to start hop farms.

I think I always liked chasing unique flavors—anything that felt different, for me, growing up in a very Midwestern place, made me think of bigger worlds, and places that I dreamed of going.

That really piqued my interest, and I wanted to open myself up to any way that I could learn about beer. And actually, ironically, this was around the time that Nicole Erny got her Master Cicerone title. I vividly remember sitting on the couch, trying to figure out what I was doing with my life after graduation, and saw that—and I was like, ‘That's incredible, I want to be like this woman.’ Her approach to everything, and thinking about the sensory skills and aromas and compounds, and how the interplay of compounds produces the final product? I got really fixated on that.”

Alyssa: “So why come to California?”

Mallorie: “I really wanted to move to the Bay Area because I had these hippie, farmers market jobs in college. The Bay Area was like that. So I moved there with a vague hope that I might get an internship to work for this festival called the Eat Real Festival—I really wanted to work for the nonprofit benefactor of the festival, called the Food Craft Institute. And I didn't know this at the time, but I went to my first meeting for Eat Real and Nicole Erny was there, and she was in charge of curating the beer for the festival. I died inside.

I ended up working at the festival, and that turned into the job at the Food Craft Institute. We organized these business classes for people who were either already in the food industry as business owners, or wanting to start a business. And I was always, from day one, really fixated on the beer course. Thankfully it was a group of women who said it makes sense for me to handle beer. That was my introduction to the actual beer industry—not just being a homebrewer or a fan.”

Alyssa: “That brings me to my next question: you landed a Fulbright Scholarship to study hop varietals in Slovenia. Why did you decide to travel so far to learn about hops?”

Mallorie: “Back then, I was wondering: how do I learn more specifically about the ingredients side of the beer industry? How do I learn more about agriculture? I didn't think that I would ever go to school to be an agronomist. I didn't have a science background. I just wanted to get to the next stage of understanding the interplay of all of these things. 

Most brewers have an understanding of where ingredients come from, but it’s become on-trend to be more interested. There are more brewers going to hop selection than ever before, or getting excited about craft malts.

I had always been interested in the idea of a Fulbright. My mom's ancestry is Slovenian, and I had also wanted to live in Slovenia. The hop-growing region in Slovenia is very old, and I'd like to think, well-respected. But Styria is small enough, in terms of hop-industry impact, that I don't think a lot of people pay attention to it. It actually seemed easier to me, at that point, to come up with a project concept, apply for this Fulbright, move to Slovenia for a year, work with people for whom English is hopefully their second language, and then try to get a job working in the hop industry in the Pacific Northwest. Because of that, a lot of doors opened: I don't know anyone else that's really paid much attention to that country and its impact in the industry.”

Alyssa: “What won you over about the ingredients side of the industry?”

Mallorie: “I think the driving force that kept me engaged with it was realizing that, for all that craft beer was then and still is now, there's a really big disconnect. Most brewers have an understanding of where ingredients come from, but it's become on-trend to be more interested. There are more brewers going to hop selection than ever before, or getting excited about craft malts. The idea of going to a barley field or a malt house on a weekend sounded fun to me. That was something that I would do in my free time. So it doesn't really surprise me that I ended up making that part of my career.”

Alyssa: “Do you feel you now have a good understanding of the labor that goes into producing these ingredients?”

Mallorie: “I think I'm still just scratching the surface, to be honest. Growing up with one side of my family being agricultural, I always was drawn to that lifestyle. Early to rise, which makes sense for a farmer, or I guess a brewer. Typically farmers go to bed earlier and don't go to tiki bars. (Editor’s note: Many brewers hit Long Beach’s tiki bars after the California Craft Beer Summit, where this interview took place.) 

After coming back from Slovenia, what drew me in further was not fully understanding what happens once an ingredient gets to a brewery. What is it, specifically, that a brewery is looking for in an ingredient? Whether that’s the flavor contribution or just from a technical standpoint, what needs to happen for fermentation? That was what interested me about Temescal Brewing. I came on board as a completely unqualified cellar person—not even qualified to wash kegs—but because of my experience, Sam Gilbert and Mike Makris would let me work on procurement and really figure that out. They were also really helping me out, regarding understanding what conversations you can have with a supplier.

I want to be the go-between for a farmer or a processor of ingredients and the end user. That’s a role that’s been difficult in the past. It hasn’t really existed.

Now I'm at Hop Head, but I'm not on the farm. I want to be the go-between for a farmer or a processor of ingredients and the end user. That’s a role that's been difficult in the past. It hasn't really existed. That being said, I think it's just the industry's interests have changed so much, and the industry has grown so quickly, that it wasn't a necessity before. Everybody's just trying to keep up.”

Alyssa: “In the Bay Area, it seems like there’s a better understanding of what’s great about craft malts than in other places, due in part to Admiral Maltings. Can you explain the importance of small-batch?”

Mallorie: “On one end of the spectrum, when it comes to malt, there are just a few really large producers, and their processes are so standardized and dialed in—which is wonderful for a lot of uses. They have the ability, because of their size, to do a lot of really helpful research for the industry, but it's specific to their needs and their customer's immediate needs. With craft malt, I feel like these smaller producers are also having very in-depth conversations with customers, because they're trying to figure out their process as well. It's opened up the door to collaboration in a new way.”

Alyssa: “Your new position at Hop Head means you’ve returned to working with hops. Is it very different from working with malts at Admiral?”

Mallorie: “In many ways, it's similar to my work at Admiral. I'm working with a lot of the same client base in California, and a lot of our customers were really geeky ’cause they were the people that were early craft-malt adopters. They want to have an in-depth conversation [about hops too], which is awesome. 

I can also talk to our farmers directly, but it's a touch more complicated on the supply-chain side—I'm dealing with more locations and more products. People in the beer industry right now are excited to talk about flavor and nuance with hops, and the interplay of different ingredients like biotransformation. I think we can and should be having those kinds of conversations with craft malt. It just seemed a little bit more difficult, because the craft malt industry is newer and I don't think those conversations are coming from some of the bigger houses. That's something that I know is going to change at some point. I feel like some sort of connective tissue, from a QC standpoint. It's only a matter of time before everyone's wanting to have those conversations in craft malt, to kind of get a holistic understanding of all the ingredients.”

Alyssa: “Do you think you'll ever open a hop farm at some point?”

Mallorie: “No—I think my actual dream, which is guaranteed to never make me any money, would be to strictly import small quantities of some of the older Styrian varieties, and market them exclusively to Lager brewers. Yeah, that makes sense.”

Words, Alyssa Pereira
Illustrations, Remo Remoquillo