“Support Your Local Brewery” is the refrain of the Brewers Association. While we can all do our best to support local businesses, unless you live in Washington, Oregon or Idaho, there really is no such thing as a locally sourced beer.
In 2011, nearly 100% of the commercial US hop production came from Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Although those states also produce a good amount of barley, the top barley producing states are North Dakota, Idaho and Montana.
(Idaho is apparently the intersection of the hop/barley Venn diagram. Idaho, the center of the Beer Universe! Who knew?)
For most US brewers, raw ingredients for beer are like coffee beans for “local” coffee roasters, they have to be imported from some other part of the world or country.
Riverbend Malt House in Asheville, North Carolina, is aiming to change at least one component of that equation for Southern brewers. Co-founders Brent Manning and Brian Simpson set out with the goal of connecting North Carolina’s 60+ breweries with the state’s barley, wheat and rye farmers to produce a regionally grown malt for their beers.
The Malt House
Brent met up with me and my friend Andy at the malt house on a chilly Saturday morning. When we first arrived at the non-descript warehouse on the south side of Asheville, a stone’s throw from I-26, we weren’t sure we came to the right place.
There was one Riverbend Malt small sign that we overlooked, otherwise there were no distinguishing marks that said, “malt is made here.” Riverbend occupies 2,500 square feet of what was originally a Quaker Oats supply warehouse built in the 1950s.
While the accommodations are modest, the beginnings of Riverbend were anything but meek. Brent and Brian took a leap that required some serious onions. They founded the business in 2010 when they saw a void in the market for locally produced malt with so many breweries springing up all around them.
In October 2010, they pulled together enough money to buy barley seed so they could get seed in the ground to be ready for harvest in late May. They did not have a location. No malting equipment. They didn’t even know how to malt grain.
That’s courage. Or insanity. Otherwise known as being an entrepreneur.
While the embryonic barley plants were sprouting, Brent and Brian went to Canada to train at Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre in Winnipeg. After their crash course, they came back to North Carolina to start piecing together the financing, finding a location and equipment.
They came across an old warehouse that had a very unique feature that made it perfect for a malt house. One of the tenants used to be a grocery store, and one room in particular was turned into the “Banana Room.”
Apparently, bananas require different storage conditions than other produce. Bananas need to be kept in a balmy, high humidity environment, so this room was outfitted with thicker walls and was sealed very well. It just so happens that these conditions are also ideal for germinating grain when equipped with a heater and humidifier.
After they built out the kiln room and moved in the rest of the equipment, they were ready to receive their first shipment of barley in the spring of 2011. 80,000 pounds worth of barley.
Think about that for a second. There are no conveyor belts in the warehouse. That means that all 80,000 pounds of barley made their way from the germinating floor to the kiln in a wheelbarrow. Hand-crafted, indeed!
During the initial planning stages of the business, Brent and Brian did extensive research to find the right type of barley for their malt. After meeting Rick Wasmund, the owner of Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Virginia, and sampling some of his Wasmund Single Malt Whiskey, they thought Rick might be on to something.
Wasmund uses Thoroughbred barley, a six-row variety that is typically used as livestock feed. Don’t let that distract you, it produced some fantastic whiskey, and the Riverbend guys knew it was the way to go.
They worked with a local farmer in Salisbury, North Carolina, about two hours east of Asheville on I-40, to determine the right conditions in which the barley should grow. Since this barley is going to be used for brewing, not livestock feed, the protein content of the grain could be substantially lower, meaning there is very little need for nitrogen-based fertilizers. This malt is custom-grown for beer.
In addition to barley, Riverbend also works with another North Carolina farmer to grow their wheat, and yet another farmer to provide the rye. It’s all grown in-state, and most of the finished product stays in-state.
The first commercial batch of beer produced with Riverbend Malt was brewed in October 2011 by the Weeping Radish Farm and Brewery in Grandy, North Carolina. Weeping Radish used the malt in their winter seasonal, a Christmas Dopplebock. It sold out in three days.
Since the first offering, Riverbend malt now appears in about two dozen beers throughout the state, including Wedge North Carolina Pale, Full Steam Cream Ale, Wicked Weed Saison 3 and Asheville Brewing.
Currently, there are only two shops where homebrewers can find the malt, aside from the malt house itself: Hops & Vines in Asheville and Grape & Grains in Greenville, South Carolina. Right now, Riverbend has enough orders from commercial breweries to keep them busy through October, so they don’t anticipate sending malt to any other homebrew shops in the area.
Since Riverbend uses a six-row variety of barley, some adjustment is necessary if you typically formulate your beer recipes using two-row barley. Six-row is a smaller grain than two-row, so you’ll have to adjust your mill rollers to be sure and crush the grain adequately to achieve a good efficiency. You may also need to use slightly more six-row grain in your recipe than two-row, since six-row has slightly less starch content per pound than two-row. In other words, your efficiency will be slightly lower per pound of grain using six-row.
Brent said that since their barley malt is fully modified and has less protein than typical six-row, a protein rest step is not necessary during the mashing process. To make it easier on homebrewers, Riverbend has even assembled recipe kits with all the grains taken care of.
I brewed a tripel with the Riverbend Pale malt as the base a couple weeks ago. I just moved it to secondary, and it’s delicious so far! I also tried the Wicked Weed Saison 3 while I was in Asheville a couple weeks ago, and it was a great beer.
Based on what I’ve tasted, I’m convinced that Brent and Brian know what they’re doing and can make a great malt. Whether you’re a homebrewer of commercial, if you’re in the Southeast, I highly encourage you to check them out.
After all, it’s one thing to support your local brewer. Take it to another level and support your local brewer that uses local ingredients.