HADLEY, Mass. — Andrea and Christian Stanley, who live next to lush farm fields here in Hadley, love all things local, including beer. A few years ago, nearby farmers in western Massachusetts had started growing grain to supply bakeries. So the couple came up with an unusual business idea to use the grain: a brewery on a bike path.
“People could come on their bikes and have the beer be made with all local ingredients,” Andrea Stanley explained.
But before they could get it going, the couple learned a key part of the beer-making process was not local: malting. Most brewers get their grain from big malt houses in the Midwest, Canada and Europe. So Andrea and Christian decided to fill that void.
“So we were like, ‘OK, we just have to figure out how to malt,’ ” Christian Stanley said.
Within days, Andrea, who’d started other businesses, bought a bag of grain from a farmer. Christian jerry-rigged a double boiler to make a mini-malting vessel. The two made their first batch of malt in the kitchen.
“I really felt a sense of urgency,” Andrea said. “‘We have to do this now. We have to be one of the first people to do this because somebody else is going to discover this.’ ”
Nine months after their kitchen batch, the Stanleys became what’s known as “maltsters.” They opened Valley Malt in September 2010. At the time it was the only malt house in the U.S. east of Wisconsin.
Malting involves steeping the grain until it germinates and then stopping the process by drying it. This makes the sugars in the grain available to the brewer or the chef. (And in case you’re wondering, malted milk balls can be made from the same malted grain brewers use.)
The Malting Process
Christian, who still keeps his day job as an engineer, farms about 80 acres of grain. The couple buys another 250 acres of grain from other farmers, mostly in Maine, New York and Massachusetts. Then they malt it.
Standing inside a 10-foot-tall stainless steel malt vessel, Christian is shoveling — or, as he puts it, “stirring” — a pile of barley.
“If you were to just not stir this … the barley will clump together,” he explains. “It could clump together really bad and basically form one huge mat of grain.”
They keep a close eye on the grain by smelling, tasting and feeling it. Christian rolls a few grains between his fingers to see if the starch inside has reached a certain consistency.
“[To] see if when I rub this together, if it leaves a white chalky residue on my fingers, which it is, and so this has got about another day germinating,” he says.
Like a chef, Andrea makes malt with special characteristics. On this day she’s smoldering cherry wood to smoke a grain called triticale, a wheat-rye hybrid.
“It has this really unique flavor with the spiciness of rye and sweetness of wheat and then the cherry wood added to it through the smoking process gives it this other layer of sweetness,” she explains.
‘There’s Kind Of A Unique Rusticity To Their Malt’
The Stanleys are malting a lot of grain now, 250 tons this year — enough to make 2 million pints of beer. And Valley Malt now holds a barley festival every fall in Hadley, featuring beers made with their malts.
J.C. Tetreault, the founder of Trillium Brewing in Boston’s Fort Point Channel, is at the festival with his family. He says having a local maltster means he can brew farm-style beer in the city.
“What they produce is truly different than what you can kind of get from the big shops,” Tetreault says. “There’s kind of a unique rusticity to their malt that you just can’t otherwise get and it works perfectly with the types of beers we are trying to create that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”
“It’s really been kind of an epiphany for me. I never stepped foot in a barley field until three years ago,” says longtime brewer Chris Lohring, who started Notch Brewing in Ipswich.
Before Valley Malt, Lohring got his malt from Canada and Europe. Now he likes the idea of keeping the money in Massachusetts.
“The money stays local, it goes to the local farmer, and to me that really harkens back to the reason why craft beer is so important,” he says, “is that people look at craft beer as buying from the local entity, the local brewer, but now you get to buy local ingredients as well. I think that’s a major step for a lot of brewers.”
In the past few years, more than a handful of other small malt houses have opened around the country. And in New York this year, a new farm brewery license is requiring more local ingredients -– bringing even more malt houses into the pipeline.
This could bring a challenge to the fledgling industry: finding enough grain in the region to supply them all. A good kind of problem for those who want to support local farms.