I am always asked when talking to brewers, distillers, or anyone in general who asks about our malthouse, “Why should one buy Craft Malt?” It is an answer I have been refining myself these last 6 years. I hate when businesses market “Buy Local” just because it is local. I have had a lot of “local” products that were just plain bad. That “local” word just isn’t enough for me. I have especially been thinking about this question these last few months as the world around us changes right in front of our eyes. We have had to adapt as a society and change the way we do business. I think during these changes is the perfect time to change the way you purchase ingredients. So I am going to try and do my best to be upfront, blunt, and honest on my opinion of craft malt as an industry and why I think it is so important to the craft brewing and craft distilling industries. There are a lot of great breweries and distilleries out there who have been long supporters of craft malt and I am forever thankful for their support. This is me just doing my best to explain the importance craft malt has in the craft beverage industries. In other words, this is my Maltifesto.
Price seems to always be one of the biggest hurdles we have had to jump when working with new customers, so let’s get into it. $200,000. I want to start with this number. This year we will be purchasing over $200,000 worth of grain directly from Indiana family farms. We contract out acreage to local farmers every year. Some years the barley quality is better than others and we can buy all the grain from our own state. Some years it doesn’t meet our high quality standards which forces us to source barley from surrounding states, but this year we will be buying over $200,000 worth of grain directly from our Indiana farmers.
Let’s break this down. Sugar Creek Malt Co. Primarily sells malt to Indiana and Illinois brewers/distillers. We produce about 1,000,000 lbs of malt in a year. 1,000,000 lbs of malt can produce about 16,000 barrels of beer. In 2019 craft beer Indiana and Illinois combined produced 688,000 barrels of beer, using over 42.5 million lbs of malt. Our small family run malthouse is supplying the malt for less than 2% of the overall needs in Indiana and Illinois. Think of the impact the brewing/distilling industry could have to struggling small family farms if instead of buying malt from foreign countries, they made a conscious effort to buy from their local malthouse. I don’t think this will ever happen, nor do I want it to happen, but lets just think about what kind of impact Illinois/Indiana breweries alone could make to local agriculture if they were to only buy malt from a craft maltster in their region. If all 688,000 barrels of beer made in Indiana and Illinois were brewed with locally grown and malted grains the brewing industry in these 2 states would be helping to purchase over $9,000,000 directly from small family farms who have been really struggling to stay afloat the last few years. Instead that money goes to farms in Europe, Canada, or at best North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. Why should an industry who markets so heavily on supporting local to sell their own product be spending their money in foreign countries or distant states when there are viable options right in their backyard. Remember this is just breweries and just in 2 states. Add distilleries and take that nation wide and think of the impact the craft beverage industry could have on our national agriculture.
Let’s talk about craft malt prices compared to “big malt.” Our malt pricing is one of the lowest that I know of when comparing to North American craft malt, but it is still more expensive than “big malt.” Why? Well number 1, we are a small scale craft malt house. Big malt can produce in 1 day what we can produce in 1 year. It would be like comparing craft beer pricing to “big beer” pricing. If someone came to you to buy beer and you told them the price and they came back with, “Well I can get a 30 case of “X Light” for the same price as your 6 pack, so your pricing is way too high,” How would you respond? There is no difference when talking to craft maltsers.
Number 2 we pay our farmers very well. We buy barley for $8/bushel. Current corn prices are $3.16/bushel. In Indiana, farmers can sell barley to the malthouse, sell the straw, and get a crop of soybeans from the field in the same year. It can be very profitable for the farmer if they meet malting specifications. The pricing out west and in Canada is much lower and not as sustainable for the farmer as they can’t get a second crop from the field. Just this spring some of the big malthouses announced they will not be taking 50% of the contracted barley this year. What does that do to the farmer? Do we need all $200,000 worth of barley this year? No, but I am sticking to my word and paying my farmers even if it means we are buying way too much barley for our current needs in this market. Another downside is much of the ground out west is irrigated which drains surrounding water sources. In the big barley producing states barley production has been falling drastically in the last decade even when malt needs from breweries have been rising. We want to help keep our farmers farming for the long haul. My family farm has seen too many of our neighbors who have been farming for generations have to get out of farming in the last few years, because it is simply not profitable anymore. Our malt pricing also reflects this higher cost of barley we pay for high quality locally grown barley.
But while we are talking about it lets do some more math. Our malt is about $.20-$.30/lb more than what can be purchased from North American “big malt”. That price difference comes down to less than $.05/ 12 oz can or pint. A nickel!! If a brewery is selling pints for $5.00 using “big malt” and wants to switch to their local craft malt, but has a problem with the price point, here is what I always suggest they do. Advertise and market to their customers that they are supporting local businesses and farmers by buying local ingredients, then raise their pints to $5.25 or $5.50. You have a story to tell about how your purchasing helps the local economy and you actually will make $.45 more per pint than what you were doing. If you are canning and in distribution I understand it is harder to get that story across and margins are much slimmer, but with a little marketing to explain how you are helping the local farmer/local economy and adding $.50/6pack you will again raise your profit margins while helping support your local economy and agriculture simultaneously.
This is just the economic impact on agriculture. Think of all of the other local industries that would be positively affected from purchasing craft malt. Maltsters, ag supply, trucking, packaging, distribution, construction… the list is endless. The economic impact to your local state economy would be huge! Instead of sending that money to other states or other countries why not keep it local to your own region?
Diversity in Product
Let’s put the economical impacts aside and talk about malt. For the last 200 years malt has pretty much been stagnant. Innovation in hop varieties, and yeast strains have exploded, but malt was pretty much the same until about 10 years ago. You had a small list of malts made from a small number of maltsters available to use to make a beer and that was it. As a brewer or distiller there were only maybe a dozen or at most two dozen malt houses you could purchase from in the world, which were all basically producing the same malts, just from different parts of the world and under different names. It amazes me how much brewers want to experiment with hops, yeast, fruit, barrels, ect. But when it comes to malt they just brew everything with the cheapest “2-row” they can buy, because “That is what they know.” This is the majority of the flavor of your beer, why not use the best malt you can get your hands on! Now that craft malt has entered the arena that has completely changed. Here at Sugar Creek Malt Co. have been producing malt for 5 years now and we have continuously been trying to innovate and change the perception of malt as a whole. We started out by dialing in our true to style European base malts. We then built a cold smoker and started offering the largest list of smoked malts in the world. Then we decided to start malting rare grains like heirloom corn, heirloom rice, buckwheat, sorghum, etc. The next year we built a roaster and began producing some of the most premium and freshest crystal malts and dark roasted malts on the market. The next year we built our Såinnhus and started producing historic malts like our Stjørdal malt, wind malt, and Diastatic Brown malt. We have been working diligently these last few years to revive a lost winter heirloom barley variety that hasn’t been malted for almost a century whose parents were Moravian Hanà landrace varieties. We started production from a small packet of seed and have grown our seedstock for 4 years. Next year we will be able to sell this to brewers to be made into some incredibly accurate and delicious historic lagers! This summer we started barrel aging malts and the amount of layers of aromas and flavors that come off these malts are insane. We don’t produce these malts because we think we will sell hundreds of thousands of lbs of it. We produce it because we are passionate about what we do and if a brewer or distiller is out there who has been looking for something new and unique we want to offer it to them. We don’t want to ever limit your creativity and artistry. We are just one malthouse out of well over 150 craft malthouses in North America. There are other craft malthouses in the country focusing on specialty roasting, gluten free grains, heirloom varieties of barley, floor malting, and much more. The diversity and innovation of craft malt is endless. This diversity will also push “big malt” to be more innovative and push their product portfolio as well. We have already seen this happen which I really happy about! I want to give brewers and distillers an endless amount of colors, aromas, and flavors to choose from just like you have with all of the other ingredients in brewing and distilling. Why buy from a dozen malthouses who carry basically the same products when you can buy from hundreds of malthouses all with their own unique touch on their malt.
I also want to warn against buying from “pseudo” craft malthouses. Just like how “big beer” is buying craft beer brands and selling them as craft beer, that same thing is happening in the malting world. These corporations have millions of dollars behind them and are trying to undercut the pricing of true craft malt. They promote as being your local malthouse but often the malt is being malted elsewhere or even by another malthouse and being sold as their own. While I am all for diversity in the market of malt I just want you to know who and what you are buying before you buy anything. Meet your maltster, tour their facility, meet their farmers, see what they are producing. I would hate for these “pseudo” craft malthouses to undercut our fledgling craft malt industry and take out the small family run malthouses before we can really establish ourselves. The innovation and experimentation will end as soon as this happens. If that comes true brewers and distillers will again be stuck with having to buy basically the same style malts being produced by “big malt” at slightly higher pricing, so just be careful on this. Again I love more diversity in the market, and have no problem with what they are doing I just want for you as a buyer to understand who and what you are buying when you buy from a new malthouse.
Relationships and Quality/Consistency
The last thing I want to say about craft malt is the relationships you can have with your maltster. There is no “big malt” that can even come close when talking about this. When it comes to craft malt you can literally call the person who grew, malted, bagged, and delivered your grain. Come out and spend a day at the malthouse. Have dinner with them and their family, become lifelong friends. You can collaborate with them and dream up new malts that you want and can not find in the market. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have sat down for dinner with my customers, walked the barley fields, or dreamed of upcoming projects with them while sharing a pint. Have you ever met the person making your malt from any of the non-craft malthouses?
Quality and consistency are definitely one of the biggest problems with upstart craft malthouses. I am the first to admit we have made mistakes in the last 5 years. Just think about it though. We have literally had to build an industry from the ground up to make malt here in Indiana. There hadn’t been malting barley grown in Indiana since before prohibition, so we had to do our own field trials with different barley varieties to figure out which would grow well and make suitable barley for malt. That took a couple of years. We then had to convince farmers to grow this barley and train them on how to make malting quality when they had never grown barley on their farm for generations. We had to custom design and build all of our equipment because there aren’t any viable small scale malt manufacturers out there that make affordable malt equipment. We then had to learn ourselves how to make malt through trial and error. It is not like brewing/distilling where there are now thousands of resources and recipes to look up and compare. Malting is a very guarded trade by “big malt” and there are only a couple of antiquated books out there that even vaguely cover the malting process. Every year we have to relearn how to malt our grain as we are working with a living grain that changes year to year. Depending on the year we have to adjust our malting practices so that our finished malt is the same as it was the year before and the year before that. We have to hire and train employees with no previous malting experience, because where would they get experience from?. Malt also isn’t as easy as saying it tastes good and has the right color. We have to hit correct efficiency, diastatic power, beta-glucan level, FAN level, friability, soluble protein, pH, the list goes on and on and takes a lot of practice and expertise to be able to hit all of these at the same time every time. I am super grateful that there was a lab started in New York a few years ago that we send all our grain and malt to for a full analysis, but man what I would give to have a $250,000 lab in house for instantaneous feedback on malt…. Someday. These last 5-10 years of craft malt have been the wild wild west and are very similar to the late 80’s-early 90’s of craft brewing. Little information, no equipment, and not many people you can go to for advice
Needless to say it has been an uphill battle for us ever since we put the idea together of starting a malthouse and I know it is the same for any start up craft malthouse, but we have grown from every mistake we have made and put in checks and balances to prevent that mistake from ever happening again. After over 5 years of malting I would put our malt quality and consistency up against any other malt made in the world. Our base malts get higher extract than most other malts, our crystal and roasted malts are some of the best I have seen on the market, and our other more unique grains are all top notch. Nobody is perfect and mistakes are made, but with craft maltsters you can call them directly and work with them to fix a problem and we will bend over backwards to help right a wrong. Of course there are craft maltsters out there making inferior malt just like there is in any industry, but let me tell you there are some amazingly talented craft maltsters who have been around for over 5 years who are making some of the best malt you can get your hands on. It is important to work with new malthouses that are starting in your state and help guide them to produce higher quality and more consistent products. If you have issues with something you get from a craft malthouse, tell them. Don’t just stop ordering from them. We are all learning and just like your first beers and whiskies we sometimes make mistakes when we are making something brand new. We can only fix those mistakes if you tell us and maybe give us a few more opportunities than you might give “big malt” who has had literally centuries, a full team of support, and millions and millions of dollars to dial in their system and processes. I know that is a lot to ask. Our first couple years we really lucked out and began working with some large breweries who needed highly efficient and consistent base malt. They really helped guide us in the right direction right off the bat and we are forever grateful for that. Work with your local craft maltster to help them make the best malt they possibly can and I promise in the long run you will be happy you did.
I know not every beer and whiskey will ever be made with local craft malt. That is not what I am saying I want to happen. I love the malt that is produced in Europe. I understand that for some beers it is better to buy cheap North American malt because the malt flavor really doesn’t have a huge impact in that style of beer. What I do want is for every brewer and distiller to at least have a relationship with their local craft maltster and at least try their malt out in a few of your products here in there. If you end up liking them then order more and grow with them. If you don’t then tell them why you didn’t and what you think should change. If every brewery and distillery had just 1 year round beer or whiskey that is made with malt from a small family run craft malthouse purchasing grain from a small family farm, just think of the economic impact that could have. What if we took that less than 2% of the market up to 20% or 30%. If more and more maltsters pop up and have enough revenue to really experiment and develop new flavors think of all the new flavors our beers and whiskey’s could have 10 years from now that today while you are reading this, you never would have even thought possible. Call your maltster, go visit them, have dinner with them. We are just like you. We are passionate about what we do and want to make our mark on beer and whiskey just like you. We aren’t in it just for the money, we need to make a living and money will help us build a better infrastructure to continually improve our malts. Our main goal is to change the way malt is viewed in beer and whiskey. Come dream with us.