Origin Malt’s barley roots in Ohio fosters promising growth for the Midwestern malt market
By: Tracey L. Kelley
It’s taken nearly a century, but barley production for craft beverages in Ohio is making a comeback. Victor Thorne and Ryan Lang, the founders of Origin Malt in Marysville, just north of Columbus, are ready to fulfill brewers’ and distillers’ demand for local products. “From seed to sip” is not only the company’s motto but also a source of intention.
“In 1900, there were over 4,000 breweries in North America. Four of the largest malt houses in the continent were in Ohio, and over 300,000 acres of malting barley were grown in the state,” Thorne told Beverage Master Magazine. “In 1978, there were fewer than 50 breweries, and no malting barley produced in our region. Now, with over 8,000 breweries in the country, and roughly half of the 27 million barrels produced within a day’s drive, we still have no industrial malting plant within 300 miles.”
Barley was a viable crop in Ohio and throughout the Midwest before Prohibition. After repeal, beer and spirit makers disappeared, and regional farmers switched to more valuable commodities such as corn, wheat and soybeans, growing barley mostly as animal feed. While producers in the Great Northern Plains and the Pacific Northwest provide some access to quality malting barley, crafters in other regions have to look elsewhere.
“Our craft brewers import the majority of their malt from Canada and Europe,” Thorne said. “Also, craft brewers require more than three times the amount of malt per barrel that they produce when compared to large industrial brewers, so as the craft segment grows, demand for malt exceeds domestic supply.”
Thorne, a tech serial entrepreneur but no stranger to the foodservice industry, believes in building relationships from the ground up. One of his first ventures provided a solution for process automation software by partnering with titans such as Cargill, Sysco and Tyson. Origin Malt’s co-creator, Lang, is a fourth-generation distiller and co-founder of Middle West Spirits in Columbus. He understood a crafter’s desire for local products. The two opened the malt house in 2015.
“I enjoy matching complex challenges with experts who can solve them. In the beer, spirits and specialty foods sectors that procure sprouted and malted grains, we require a range of expertise to tackle each of the delicate steps to provide the highest quality products at competitive prices,” Thorne said. “Before taking steps to build a malt house, Ryan and I spent several years forming trusted relationships with the agricultural community, from seed breeding, seed production, agronomists, university researchers, established global maltsters and the end customer—brewers and distillers. Our equity partners represent all of these key relationships.”
More Than Malt
“Malt is the foundation of beer—some people may say the ‘soul’ of craft beer. After working in the industry and learning so much about the brewing process—sensory, fermentation and quality—what struck me was that malt sets us up. It’s the canvas with which wort is created,” said Sara Hagerty, sales and marketing director for Origin Malt.
“The question we want to answer is, ‘Why isn’t barley grown [in the area], and how can we bring it back to the region in a functional, sustainable and economically-impactful way?’” she said. “Victor and Ryan found a way to truly shorten the barley supply chain. For me personally, I could get behind that and feel confident that the groundwork was laid for a revolution in sourcing, procuring and bringing high-quality malt products for brewers and distillers to market.”
From her passion as a dedicated homebrewer to her work for a leading liquid yeast provider, and later with a global malt provider, Hagerty’s experience helps her envision an integrated purpose for Origin Malt. “Suppliers should be more than salespeople with a price list and a catalog. Suppliers should be educators, listeners and visionaries. From our work with consumers, our customers, and our directly-contracted growers—every step of our supply chain is highly regarded and valued.”
Supply starts with seed—in this case, that of LCS Puffin, a two-row winter malting barley. It’s derived from the heirloom variety Maris Otter—a popular grain grown in the United Kingdom and appreciated by brewers worldwide. Puffin was initially identified from 50,000 stock seeds by Eric Stockinger, a molecular biologist at Ohio State University, and now bred by the Miln Marsters Group.
“In the Midwest/Great Lakes region, Puffin is planted in early fall and harvested in late spring/early summer. As a winter grain, the variety comes with some standard characteristics—a well-adhered husk, low protein and winter hardiness. These attributes and more play a part in how we malt it and the flavors it creates,” Hagerty said.
Base and specialty malts include Pilsen, Brewers, Light Munich, C40, C60 and C90. “Some of the flavors and appeal that Puffin has can be identified in its classic nutty characteristic, and as more pronounced roasted almond flavor in some of our specialty malts,” she said.
“How we decide on the base and specialty malts we bring to market is based on the general needs of our customers, and also the ability to provide a solid lineup of products that are versatile. Meaning, you could utilize all of them across a set of recipes or pull in one or two for a specific recipe,” Hagerty said. “While our established products exist with industry specifications in mind, we’re always keeping our eye on the opportunity to produce limited-edition specialty and custom products for customers.”
The company currently uses a partner malting facility, but plans to establish one of its own in central Ohio so, as Thorne puts it, the supply chain shortens to “300 miles from seed-to-sip.”
At press time, Origin Malt’s products are used in more than 50 beers and spirits, as well as health foods, baked goods and other items. To help producers explore the possibilities, the team frequently hosts beer dinners and “Seed-to-Sip Malt Schools” with brewing and distilling partners using a Hot Steep method to evaluate aroma and flavor.
A Boom for Midwest Agriconomy
Puffin is sourced from directly-contracted family farms in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. Growers in New York are interested, too. Producers in search of a reliable winter cover cash crop have an advantage with Puffin not only because of its cold heartiness and disease resistance, but also its ability to help reduce soil erosion and runoff, improve terroir and water quality, and provide wildlife habitat.
“By growing winter malting barley in combination with double-cropping soybeans, farms can reduce soil erosion and phosphorous runoff by as much as 80%. This is significant since we’re growing in the Great Lakes region, and phosphorous is the primary feed for algae blooms,” Thorne said. “I didn’t anticipate this being a major discovery that reinforces our commitment to conservation and sustainability.”
Origin Malt expects a 2019–2020 harvest of 10,000 acres, but the five-year projection is 75,000.
“Puffin has a rich European heritage, and has had amazing results since we began producing and testing the variety—initially a cup of seed—nearly a decade ago,” Thorne said. “Our process and demonstrated commitment to bringing malting barley varieties to large has inspired more interest in our region from seed breeders who have been more focused on developing varieties suited to grow in other regions around the world.”
Reintroducing an integral ingredient in a multi-level supply line isn’t without risk, but Hagerty thinks Origin Malt’s best practices are factors growers and crafters can trust.
“Every crop year can yield slightly different results, and it’s up to us—the maltster—to manage how we adapt and uphold our specifications and adjust our malting protocols. I’m a big believer in that it comes down to how you’re educating and keeping your customer informed—as that relationship needs to be lock-step to make sure that everyone can do their best,” she said.
“We’re very focused on risk management, which is why we’re strategic in where we grow and how we develop and diversify our growing region,” Hagerty told Beverage Master Magazine. “That being said, if barley volumes or quality were low, there’s an established global market for high-quality malting barley that Origin Malt could procure. Maintaining those secondary-sourcing relationships is something we already have in place in case of a North American shortage or crop failure.”
Thorne said weather is the challenge he worries about most, but cannot control. “To mitigate the risk of weather damaging our crops, we’re committed to spreading our seed across a several-hundred-mile range from Illinois to the Atlantic coast.”
The company’s agriconomy roots will filter even deeper in the coming years. “When our plant is at capacity, we’ll be ‘reshoring’ tens of millions of dollars every year from the local researchers, seed sales, malting barley production, agronomists, local storage and transportation, and our malting facility,” said Thorne. “Total economic impact will exceed $2 billion from seed-to-sip.”
He said he loves all the people Origin Malt works with, “aligning every day to make this a success. I’m driven by the potential to make a sustaining impact on an important supply chain.”
Hagerty is always excited by the “amazing products made with our malt and watching consumers learn about our supply chain and the processes and products that come as a collaborative effort between Origin Malt, barley growers and our brewing and distilling customers.”
“The value that our malt house has is in the ability for our future facility and the agricultural economy to tie in more deeply with the craft beverage movement, and most critically with craft beverage consumers,” she said. “Sustainability isn’t just an outlook for the short term, but a long-term goal that will continue to be challenged and achieved with the efforts of our team, our growers, our brewing and distilling customers, and, most importantly, consumers who seek to support American agriculture.”