From Grain to Glass

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Palouse Pint offers Spokane-area craft brewers something they haven’t had since Prohibition: local malt

STORY BY ADRIANA JANOVICH

black_label0533_cropIt’s still early on a recent Saturday night, but nearly all of the tables at Black Label Brewing Co. in downtown Spokane are already full. Of the brewery’s 15 beers listed on a chalkboard above a row of taps, two carry a special designation: insignias identifying them as Palouse Pints.

These two brews — the Palouse Pale Ale and Summer Shandy — are about as local as beers can get. The hops come from 200 miles down the road in Yakima. The grain is grown on the Palouse, some 60 miles south of Spokane in Colfax, then malted at Palouse Pint, a new micro-craft malt house about 10 miles away.

“We can finally say we know 100 percent where this beer comes from,” says Dan Dvorak, brewer and co-owner at Black Label. “It really is a special thing. Not many brewers can say they’re a part of something like this.”

He’s particularly proud of these two experimental brews — and he should be. The Palouse Pale Ale is balanced and smooth, with a hint of bitterness. The English Pale Malt stands out as much as the Columbus, Tomahawk, and Zeus hops.

The refreshing Summer Shandy — featuring Cascade hops and an almost 50-50 blend of English Pale and White Wheat malts — isn’t as sweet as most. There’s a kiss of orange from Black Label’s own housemade orange soda, but the malt, particularly the White Wheat, is the star of this shandy. “The White Wheat is amazing,” Dan says. “I could put it in a bowl and eat it like popcorn. It’s that good. It’s got a different element to it — maybe because it’s fresh or it’s local and we’re getting it right after it’s been malted.” 

Palouse Pint, opened earlier this year in Spokane Valley, is the first cooperative malt house in the country since Prohibition. It’s also the first commercial malt operation in Eastern Washington since Prohibition and only the second craft maltster in the entire state — although another is slated to open in Walla Walla next year. Before mini craft malt houses like Palouse Pint started cropping up around the country, it was almost impossible to find locally made beers brewed with locally grown and malted grains.

Such ales are still fairly rare. But craft maltsters such as Palouse Pint’s Joel Williamson aim to change that. The idea is to make beer with main ingredients that come from within a couple of hundred miles to make beer that’s really, truly, local.

The plow-to-pint movement brings beer all the way back home. And, according to Joel, who started Palouse Pint and co-founded its parent organization, Local Inland Northwest Cooperative, or LINC Foods, it’s the next big thing in craft brewing. “It makes perfect sense for Spokane,” says Joel. “We have all the grain here. We have all these brewers.”

There are more than 40 breweries on the Inland Northwest Ale Trail, which includes breweries from Spokane and Pullman in Washington to Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint in Idaho. Nearby Palouse country, which encompasses the fertile hills and fields of Southeastern Washington and North Central Idaho and grows wheat and barley used to brew beer, is among the top grain-growing regions in the U.S. Idaho is in the top 10, too. Both states are also among the country’s top barley producers.

palouse_pint_10Without malt — the germinated grain used in brewing and distilling — there’d be no beer. It is — sorry, hopheads — the main ingredient. But, says Dan, “people don’t think about malt. They think about hops and bitterness. Malt is the backbone.”

Malting is the process by which grain is soaked, sprouted, and dried to develop the enzymes needed for the grain’s starch to convert to sugar, then alcohol, during the brewing process. “You’re basically tricking grain into sprouting,” explains Joel, who credits the recent uptick in micro-craft maltsters to the earlier and ongoing rise of the U.S. craft beer and craft spirits movement.

America now has more breweries than ever before. Similarly, craft distilling is exploding. And industry insiders predict craft malt will soon have its moment, too. Micro-craft maltsters are already on the rise — from Washington State’s Skagit and Spokane valleys to Massachusetts.

“Craft maltsters are popping up all over,” says Jacqueline Billings, executive director of the North American Craft Maltsters Guild, of which Palouse Pint’s Joel is a board member. “We have members making great local malts all over the United States and in Canada. The guild has 225 active members, including representatives of craft malt houses, aspiring maltsters, and others with a vested interest in the craft-malting industry, such as farmers.”

At last count, says Jacqueline, there were 45 malt houses in production “and many more in various stages of planning and construction.” Ten years ago, there were four.

Craft malt houses began appearing in the early 2000s. The first one since Prohibition in Washington State, Skagit Valley Malting started in Burlington, north of Seattle, in 2010. Rogue Ales in Newport, Oregon, which also grows its own grain, broke ground on its micro-malting operation the same year.

“It was a slow trickle until 2012 or so, when things really started to gain momentum,” Jacqueline says. “We’ve seen 12 malt houses open in the past 18 months, and there are 25 more that are currently under construction. It’s pretty incredible.”

By definition, craft malts use a majority of locally grown grains and are made without chemical additives. The malts must also be made in small batches, with craft-malt houses selling between 5 and 10 metric tons per year, according to the Craft Maltsters Guild. By comparison, the large malt houses produce 100,000 to more than 200,000 tons of malt per year.

While big malting operations tend to focus on consistency, craft maltsters — because of their size and ability to use a variety of ancient and hard-to-find grains — can focus on how slight variations in time, temperature, and moisture content bring out the best in each variety.

Across the Atlantic, craft malting isn’t new. In Europe, small malt houses run largely like they did 200 years ago. The scene was similar in America before Prohibition, when mom-and-pop malt houses operated around the country. “It was more decentralized,” Joel says. “Pre-Prohibition, many towns would have a malt house. There were at least two in Spokane.” Even tiny Tekoa — which, with about 800 residents, is half the size it was 100 years ago — had one.

palouse_pint_6After Prohibition, a handful of large malt operations took over production. In their wake, those small, family-run shops died out or were bought up and essentially disappeared. Even with increasing numbers of craft maltsters, the U.S. malt industry remains largely consolidated. Still, Jacqueline says, Craft malt has the potential to take craft brewing to a new level. Uniquely crafted regional malts with distinct flavor profiles provide craft brewers with a whole new set of tools. We are a young industry, but I feel like I can say with certainty that craft malt is just getting started.”

Formed in 2014, LINC Foods helps Spokane-area farmers by distributing their locally grown and raised foods to customers such as local school districts and universities. A goal of its new malt operation is to keep LINC sustainable year-round, not just during growing season.

Today, LINC involves 43 farmers, including Bill Myers, one of the original eight members and the first farm to provide wheat and barley to Palouse Pint. He grows the English Pale and White Wheat malts featured in Black Label’s specialty beers.

Like most Palouse farmers, the bulk of the wheat Bill grows ends up all over the world, trucked from his farm to the Columbia River, where it’s loaded onto barges, bound first for Portland, then to destinations throughout the Pacific Rim. To help keep a fraction of his harvest local, Bill started Joseph’s Grainery in 2009, selling whole grain, flours, cereals, and pancake and cookie mixes. Still, the bulk of his barley, an old variety called Baronesse, was sold for animal feed. After connecting with Joel and doing a bit of research, Bill, a fifth-generation Palouse grain farmer, discovered this: “Low and behold, it’s great for malting.”

A home brewer himself, Joel pitched the idea of a cooperative craft malt house to the LINC board in early 2015. The start-up cost would be big: some $600,000 in custom equipment. Plus, their product would be more expensive than large commercial operations, which can sell product for roughly 40 to 80 cents per pound. Palouse Pint charges $1 per pound.

“It costs more, but it stays local,” says Joel, who makes a single-hop, single-malt test beer from each batch of grain he malts at Palouse Pint. “It’s good for local farms, and it’s good for local small breweries. It gives them more options.”

Joel grew up on the Palouse. While his family didn’t grow grain, they owned and operated a rose-growing business that had been started by Joel’s great-grandfather. It folded after eight decades when Joel was a teen. “I didn’t really get what was going on, but I knew that it was pretty painful,” he says. It also helped grow his interest in sustainable agriculture and business models. LINC Foods was his thesis project for his MBA in Sustainable Business at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. He sees Palouse Pint as a continuation and natural fit.

Palouse Pint’s first batch of barley was malted in April of 2015. In May, the launch party featured beer from these local breweries: Badass Backyard, Bellwether, Big Barn, Hopped Up, No-Li, Orlison, Perry Street, Young Buck, and, of course, Black Label, which opened in 2014 and aims to “stay as local as possible,” says Dan.

palouse_pint_8“Our whole plan is to hopefully use only Palouse Pint’s malt. That’s our ultimate goal.” Until now, he says, craft brewing has been about hops. And, “Yakima is the epicenter of hops in the United States. But as far as malt goes, we brewers don’t really know where we’re getting it from. For us — for me, anyway — it’s an amazing thing to have locally sourced malt. It’s the last link in the chain.”

To start, Palouse Pint offers four different malts, all featuring grain from Joseph’s Grainery: soft white wheat and low-protein Baronesse. From the barley, Joel produced three kinds of malt, including Crystal Biscuit and Spokane Pilsner.

Baronesse is “unusual for malting,” Joel says. “It tastes better, it tastes different, but it doesn’t produce much sugar.” It’s also rare. Bill, who’s been growing Baronesse since the late 1970s or early 1980s, believes he’s the only one who has the barley available commercially. “There’s nowhere you can buy Baronesse right now,” he says — except through him. “It’s just a phenomenal barley,” he says, echoing Dan, the brewer. “It’s there for flavor.”

And that’s where craft maltsters could have an edge on the competition. Big Malt “is looking for maximizing production,” says Bill. “Taste is almost secondary.” Across the country, he adds, brewers “are using the same malt. And so they’ve got to order in special malts from England or Germany to put a finish on their brews.”

Local grain and craft malting gives brews a sense of place, similar to terroir in wine, Joel says. He’s calling it “beeroir.” And it’s something he wants to explore through ancient grains such as spelt and emmer, as well as rye, hard red wheat, oats, maybe even buckwheat. On a recent morning, he started malting his first batch of triticale, raised near Ritzville.

“It’s a weird-looking grain,” Joel says, just before loading the first of two 1-ton bags of triticale into the steep tank. “It’s an old hybrid of rye and wheat, and it kind of looks like both. It’s hardy. There’s no husk, and it should lend a reddish color to the beer as well as a sweet spicy flavor. This is supposed to brew better than rye,”

The malting process, which takes about an hour, includes pouring grain into bins, then feeding it through an auger and a tube — “like an elevator,” Joel explains — to the tank, where the grain will steep for a full 24 hours. The rest of the process — treating the grain with heat and air — takes about four days.

This fall, Joel expects business to pick up. In addition to brewers, he’s hoping bakers and restaurants want to get into the action, working malt into their artisan bread-making.

A Spokane craft distillery, Tinbender, is also working on a single-malt Palouse Pint whiskey. “Even though people are interested, they have to figure out how to incorporate it,” Joel says. “It’s something new.”

Nationwide, Jacqueline expects demand to grow. “I think that one of the big drivers of craft malt as an industry is the increasing sophistication of our tastes as consumers,” she says. “Interest in local sourcing is creeping into everything we eat and drink, and discussions of terroir and regional flavor profiles are trickling out of the wine industry and into other products as well. What does a 100-percent Washington beer taste like? How does it differ from one brewed in New York? Maltsters are the key linkage between grain growers and craft brewers and help to complete the place-based narratives that are becoming so important to our food culture.”

Bill agrees. “I think we’re on the leading edge of something quite special. The timing is right.” So is the location. “We raise the best grain in the world right here in this area. And it’s not a secret to anyone.”

 

Adriana Janovich writes from — and drinks beer in — Spokane.

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