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Skagit Malting

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barleys at kneading conference

Skagit Malting is poised to change craft beer making

STORY BY TARA AUSTEN WEAVER
PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE

In an unassuming facility in the Port of Skagit, about an hour north of Seattle, a revolution in the world of craft beer may be underway. It all comes down to one thing: malt.

Malting, if you are not familiar with the term, is the process by which barley and wheat are germinated to yield the starches and sugars needed for making beer and whiskey. Most American microbrewers use malt from Europe, but a new company, Skagit Valley Malting, is looking to change that.

European malts are based on grains that exhibit lower protein levels (high proteins result in beer that is cloudy). Though most American grain is bred for high protein levels, conditions in the Skagit Valley tend to produce lower-protein grains.

“There’s nowhere else in the U.S. that has the same conditions, says Wayne Carpenter, one of the partners in the new malting project. Western Washington’s cool summers and low drought risk is ideally suited to this sort of grain. It’s a similar climate to Great Britain and northern Europe, where much of the world’s malt comes from. But it’s not just the protein levels that people are getting excited about, it’s the variety.

Take barley. There are currently twenty-some-odd types of barley malt used for brewing in North American, but there are actually 15,000 varieties of barley available. Skagit Malting is hoping to bring a wider range of flavors to the brewing industry. “This could be a whole new dimension,” says Carpenter.

To use a non-beverage comparison: it’s not unlike going from the 8-pack of crayons to the deluxe bonus set. With such increased grain variations available, the potential flavor permutations are almost unimaginable.

Carpenter and his partners have been experimenting with different varieties and have been encouraged by the results. At recent tasting the group was stumped by flavors they had never experienced in beer before. “We didn’t even have words to describe it,” he says, “but everyone agreed they were new flavors.”

“Barley malt is the grape of the brewmaster,” explains Carpenter. “The idea that our microbrewers can choose a malt and an area and a grower—it will be like wine grapes and different vintages.”

Carpenter points out that malt can be stored much easier than wine grapes can. Although there are some challenges with that idea.

Grains are traditionally dried for storage at heat high enough to kill the sprout and render it un-maltable. The existing grain infrastructure in the Skagit Valley is thus incompatible. But another Skagit product is seed, which is harvested and stored without high heat. The resources are available in the valley—it’s just a matter of modifying the systems to accommodate this new crop.

Skagit Malting is working with the Port of Skagit to develop an 11,000-square-foot facility that will be able to produce 3,000 tons of malt a year. Though Carpenter estimates that yield will only fulfill 5% of the existing demand from microbrewers in Washington alone, this has potential to be a huge opportunity. “The demand far outstrips our ability to meet it,” he says. And yet, it’s an exciting start.

The malting group recently attended a conference organized by the North American Brewing Association, where their presentation was greeted with keen interest.

Like many involved in this project, Carpenter imagines the Skagit Valley developing into a center for beer and whiskey. There’s a strong desire to create a local economy for the grains produced in the valley, which have long been grown in rotation with more profitable crops, to break the disease cycle, but often sold at a loss or plowed under on years when grain prices are low.

This quest is supported by the Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center, where breeders and researchers are studying the locally grown grains. The department is headed up by Dr. Stephen Jones, who happens to be Carpenter’s neighbor. “We’d like to create added value, and to keep that value here,” Jones says. It was his research on local grains and their low protein levels that tipped Carpenter off to their suitability for brewing.

“There is a synergy around this,” says Carpenter: from the farmers, to malsters and craft beer makers. “There are a lot of ways for everyone to win.”

Tara Austen Weaver is author of The Butcher & The Vegetarian, Tales from High Mountain, and Orchard House (forthcoming), a memoir of growing food and family.

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