BURLINGTON, Wash. (AP) — Microbreweries and home-brewers across the nation may soon be looking to Skagit Valley for one all-important ingredient needed for their varieties of beer: malt.
Thanks to a partnership among entrepreneurs, grain researchers, local farmers and the Port of Skagit, Skagit Valley Malting, LLC will soon start moving equipment into a 11,745-square-foot building at the Bayview Business Park in Burlington. Company founder Wayne Carpenter said large-scale production should start in the first quarter of next year.
Malting is the process of taking grain — barley for most brews, but occasionally wheat — and preparing it to release internal sugars and flavors into water to start a batch of beer. Special equipment and processes are used to clean and sort the grain before it is hydrated to stimulate germination. Once germination is complete, the grain is roasted and then transported to breweries.
Carpenter, the former president of a software company, said he worked with Port Director Patsy Martin to come up with a business plan that would capitalize on Skagit County's resources and key in on growing demand. Carpenter said he brought together a group of interested — and largely retired — engineers, investors, maltsters and brewers to get the company off the ground.
The large and growing legion of microbreweries is proof positive of demand, Carpenter said. According to the Washington Beer Commission website, the state is home to 150 small craft breweries.
Carpenter said Northwest microbreweries currently import 25,000 tons of barley malt per year from Europe, ordering premium malts for definitive tastes.
He said large malting facilities in the Midwest don't supply the type of grain or roast in malt sought by high-end microbreweries.
"We can grow a lot of the same crops they can grow in the Midwest," Carpenter said. "But we can grow a lot that they can't that are worth a lot more."
Western Washington, Oregon and British Columbia have the perfect climate — wet and cool springs with dry, hot summers — to grow many of the grains used to make malt in Great Britain and northern Europe, Carpenter said.
Growers in the region also have access to the expertise of grain-breeders at Oregon State University and the test fields at Washington State University's Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon, where thousands of different types of grains for are tested for specific applications, including malting.
Stephen Jones, lead grain researcher and director of the WSU center, said he and Ph.D. student Brook Brouwer worked with maltsters to develop grains perfect for malting, a first for western Washington and Oregon. The varieties were then tested at local and regional farms.
Jones said farmers currently grow grain as a cover crop to add nutrients to soil that has been depleted from historic cash crops such as potatoes and vegetables. Usually the grain is sold at commodity prices, earning little or no profit for the farmer, Jones said.
With specialty grain varieties, farmers can earn more money by growing a crop valuable for certain industries, Jones said. But farmers need value-added infrastructure, such as the new malting facility, to have a place to sell their crop.
"This is a way to keep our products local and add value to barley right here, instead of shipping it out and selling it out of the area," Jones said.
Brouwer said the "local food" movement is starting to encompass beer, as well, driving up demand for ingredients sourced as closely as possible to the breweries.
"Everybody wants lettuce grown in their backyard, and now everybody wants beer made with ingredients from their backyard, as well," Brouwer said.
Carpenter said brewers usually rely on hops, varieties of yeast and different styles of roasting on a few grain varieties as the main driver of taste in beers.
However, he said his company-developed malting equipment can be fine-tuned to the varieties of barley coming out of OSU and WSU, giving brewers a new range of flavors to play with.
"Most of what you can do to change the taste of a beer is to do different roasts on the grain, or use different hops," Carpenter said. "But no one is giving different types of grain. We're kind of opening up a new dimension of brewing."
Kurt Ahrens, owner of North Sound Brewing in Mount Vernon, said he buys much of his malt from a distributor in Vancouver, Wash., but would be interested in buying from a local facility if the product was high-quality for a reasonable price.
"It's gotta be good. The quality's gotta be there for us to use it." Ahrens said. "It'd be cool to make beer using locally grown and malted barley."