Craft Malt in the Brewery

By: Erik Myers

Recently, the Craft Maltsters Guild – the non-profit association dedicated to promoting the manufacturers it defines as “craft maltsters” – announced The Craft Malt Certified Seal, a new initiative to promote the use of craft malt by breweries. In order to qualify, a beer or spirit must contain at least 10% of its grist, by weight, of malt sourced from one of the Craft Maltsters Guild’s members.

  A craft maltster is defined as a maltster that is independently owned, that produces between five and 10,000 metric tons of malt per year, and that uses grain grown within a 500-mile radius of the malt house for at least half of their grain supply.

The Difficulties of Using Craft Malt

  Craft malt is an industry that is still very much in its infancy. There are very few craft maltsters that have been around for more than a few years, and even those that have been in business for a decade or more are only recently seeing healthy and sustained growth on the wave of a beer industry that favors local goods as a strong marketing standpoint.

  Craft maltster startups have many of the same issues as small brewery startups: Capital intensive equipment, a production process that requires a varied technical background, and a competitive marketplace that’s dominated by a few, large, international players. Craft maltsters have an added layer of complexity of – in many cases – having to educate their suppliers in how to make the products that they need to operate.

  The end result can be, at the worst of times, an inconsistent product: variations in color, moisture content, diastatic power, protein or sugar content, uneven kernel sizes, or inconsistent flavor characteristics, all of which can cause difficulties for a brewery that is engaged in making a consistent product from batch to batch.

  Like any brewery moving through its startup phase into an experienced, scaled production facility, most craft maltsters have grown past these initial challenges to create an even, predictable, product, but the occasional problem may still arise – particularly with an untested supplier or process.

  Other difficulties working with craft maltsters can come from simple supply chain issues. Smaller suppliers with longer lead times and limited on-hand inventory can be challenging to predict when managing a small brewery that is, itself, running a just-in-time inventory process. One hiccup in that supply chain can affect weeks worth of brewing.

  Finally, it’s difficult to ignore that all of the above also comes at a higher price point. While malt from international maltsters can run as low as $0.40/lb before bulk discounts, it’s rare to see a small maltster with the scale available to get a price point anywhere near that, and most are at least double. Those craft maltsters, themselves, are paying an elevated rate for grain from small suppliers who are dedicating a small portion of their farms to malting barley. They do not have the advantage of a scaled, international supply chain for cost benefit to pass along to a brewery customer.

  Using a local craft maltster can often mean paying a premium for a product with uneven consistency and unpredictable supply.

The Advantages of Using Craft Malt

  For all that, there are definite advantages to having a relationship with your local small malt house. 

  Working with a local maltster gives a brewer a whole new palette of flavors and ingredients to work with. In an industry where 7000+ players all use the same basic inputs, a local maltster is an avenue toward differentiation: Each grain does have its own “terroir” that follows through into the end beer, providing a very distinct taste of place. Maltsters that have roasters might offer a lighter or darker Lovibond roast of chocolate, caramel, or Munich-style malts than might be available at a commodity maltster. It allows a brewer that many more variations on ingredients that they can use to create a more distinct array of beers to help differentiate themselves in a crowded market.

  While there may be times that a local maltster can’t deliver as fast as a larger supplier could, they can also be the source of last minute saves and emergency help. Short a couple of bags of base malt on the last brew of the day? Being able to drive over to your local malt house to pick up 150 lbs of grain is a distinct advantage that can definitely save you in a pinch.

  Local maltsters also have – like small breweries – the ability to make weird stuff without taking an enormous financial risk. The capability to malt ancient, heirloom, or alternate grains like triticale, spelt, buckwheat, or corn, sometimes in incredibly small batches, can lead to truly innovative brews that would be otherwise unavailable from larger maltsters.

  From an environmental and sustainability standpoint, it’s undeniable that using a local craft maltster creates a smaller carbon footprint for your operation. Instead of shipping a container across a country or across an ocean, most of that malt originates at a farm within a day’s drive and never really has to move that much farther away, meaning less fuel, lower emissions, less labor, and fewer aggregate resources than it would at a large scale malt house.

Finally, the vast majority of the money paid to that local maltster stays within the local economy in the form of wages as well as payments to their suppliers – local farms and local agriculture. It’s a way that a brewery’s dollars can make a significant and multi-industry impact on the local economy.

But Is It a Marketing Advantage?

  The most challenging part of using malt from a local maltster, however, isn’t ingredient consistency, how to use the ingredients, or any potential supply chain issues. It simply comes down to this:

How Well Can You Tell the Story?

  There is no barrier to entry for a brewery to use a local maltster aside from price. As long as a brewery is willing to pay the premium for the malt, they are an instant user and it behooves them to become an instant evangelist. The added price of malt comes with few immediate end-product advantages itself: A smaller carbon footprint and better support of the local economy isn’t reflected in the taste of the beer, in a better bottom line, or any sort of cost-driven advantage. It’s a marketing point.

  While working with a local maltster on a specific new roast or grain might lead to new recipes, without something truly distinct showing up in the glass, telling the story of local malt is a difficult one because drinking customers, in large, don’t really know what malting is. It falls on the brewery to educate the end consumer as to what a local maltster really is, and how using one positively impacts the environment and the local economy. It also lies on the brewery to show their customer the value of the added cost that local malt brings to beer.

Craft Malt Certified

  Enter the seal of approval: Craft Malt Certified. The seal, created by the Craft Maltsters Guild, is a tool to help breweries and distilleries tell that story to their customers. By creating a seal to go into packaging and the taproom, it creates a conversation piece for customers to engage with. What is craft malt? Why does it matter?

  The odd stumbling block is that rather than creating a freely-available graphic to help breweries raise craft malt’s profile, the Craft Maltsters Guild has put a price on the use of the seal, charging $150 per year to register as a faithful customer – yet another cost, albeit a small one, on top of the premium cost of using the malt in the first place.

  That is the hurdle that still needs to be cleared by craft maltsters and their end users: how to sell the story of increased cost to their customers in a way that makes them care enough to part with their money. Without the additional value proposition, the story of craft malt becomes muddled into the same gnarled discussion of what local means that the entire craft beer industry wrestles with: What does local really mean? How far away does something have to be to no longer be considered local? Is it your local neighborhood, your city, or your state? Is your beer still “local” if it uses malt from another country? What about hops? Will the customer pay a premium for “local” when it increases the cost of the end product to well above regional market norms?

  With the uncertain answers to these questions comes the unfortunate follow-up:

  Why does any but the most enlightened end-customer care?

  The craft malt industry is an exciting new development within the craft beer industry with reflections of what the craft beer industry itself went through 40 years ago. In a modern marketplace focused almost single-mindedly on hops as a key ingredient, it faces a bevy of challenges that it may only get through with the help of its most ardent customers.

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