At least in Washington, beer malt doesn’t get much love. Breweries have been name checking their hops for years now, and yeasts too are increasingly called out. But malts—which provide the actual energy for alcohol—often go unnamed, unless they’re a European import.
Perhaps that’s because what malt is, precisely, is little understood. Essentially, the cereal grain (usually barley or wheat) is soaked and sprouted, then toasted until it starches are converted to maltose sugar which is used to make beer or whiskey. Generally, most malt in US beers has come from bulk distributors. But Skagit Valley Malting—the Burlington-based company which started seven years ago, though started producing significantly in the last 18 months—is shaking that up.
“First and foremost, Skagit Valley Malting is a terroir business,” says sales and business development manager Adam Foy. The differences in barley varieties may not be quite as pronounced as those in grapes, he says. But the rote way we’ve been looking at malt—simply as barley or wheat—doesn’t do its varieties justice: “It would kind of be like asking a winemaker, ‘What style of grape did you use for this wine?’ And they say, ‘Red.’”
SVM malts have already been used by around 60 different beer makers in Washington, including Fremont, Pike Brewing, Flying Bike, and Westland Distillery. Mt. Vernon's Farmstrong Brewing is working toward using Skagit Valley malts exclusively.
Formerly, most of the grains in the Skagit Valley were grown as rotation crops—plants meant to rejuvenate the soil so that big money making crops like spinach seed or tulips grow better—and sold at low commodity crop prices. Though by turning these grains into malt, SVM can pay farmers higher prices, so that the rotation crops are profitable.
Barley alone has over 32,000 types, but SVM has been collaborating both with the Bread Lab and with the farmers in Skagit to grow and malt grain varietals with specific qualities, or that highlight the special soil of the Skagit itself, like a purple, hull-less barley called Obsidian barley, or an experimental strain from WSU called NZ-151, or less commonly malted varieties like buckwheat and pumpkin seed. Specialized small-scale machinery means grains can be custom malted to brewers’ specifications.
And collaborations can even stretch from farmers to SVM to breweries, as is the case with the organic malts SVM is producing for Bellingham’s organic brewery Aslan. You know, the sort of thing that injects some real meaning back into buzzwords like “local” and “sustainable.”