By: Erik Lars Myers
Sebastian Wolfrum, the German-born owner of Durham, North Carolina’s Epiphany Malt, wants to do the right thing.
Wolfrum’s epiphany came in 2012, while he and his wife attended a meeting for local farmers about how they could get involved with North Carolina’s burgeoning craft beer industry. The problem, however, was that at the time, there were very few options for farmers to sell the crops they might grow. North Carolina’s one malt house at the time, Asheville’s Riverbend Malting, was still nascent and small. Wolfrum, drawing on his background in brewing and malting education at Ayinger Brewing near his hometown of Munich, and his experience at Natty Greene’s Brewing Company in Greensboro, North Carolina, started Epiphany Craft Malt in 2015.
Epiphany has a lot of disadvantages to cope with, like any other small manufacturer, primarily driven by scale. They are tiny compared to national and international malt providers like Rahr, Briess or Weyermann, and they lack the economy of scale that allows them to produce high-quality malt at competitive prices. It is a trade-off that brewers must be willing to make when using a local maltster. You will pay more for the product—in some cases a lot more—but that money goes to support the local economy, and you are potentially buying a product with more of a local “terroir” or “maltoire.” In some cases, like Epiphany, it means supporting even more than just a local economy.
Wolfrum says that evening out the environmental impact of the business is considerably more difficult at a small scale. Large maltsters have the personnel and resources to dedicate toward reducing a carbon footprint, but a three-person operation like his must find another way.
Enter Indigo Agriculture, a company that provides farmers financial incentives to practice regenerative agriculture—a method of farming that improves soil health, builds ecosystem biodiversity and closes the “carbon cycle.” Wolfrum was first made aware of regenerative agriculture in his Ayinger days while working on their Regional Impact Study back in 2002.
He describes farming as having essentially three modes: The first he considers “the old way,” what he deems “exploitative.” In short, it involves farming a piece of land until all of the available nutrients are gone and extracted, then moving on to a new plot and beginning again.
The second he deems “contemporary” or “conventional.” It is farming land and using additives or practices that maintain soil health, allowing the farmer to continue using the same plot each year without degeneration. Those practices may involve crop rotation or artificial soil additives to maintain soil health and keep it at the base level that the farmer needs. It might also take the form of supplemental fertilizers and nitrogen additives that take energy—and thus carbon—to produce and disseminate.
The third is regenerative, an ethos that encourages building and improving soil health, increasing water retention and biodiversity and significantly reducing carbon emissions during farming and cleansing the atmosphere of CO2. Regenerative practices include implementing crop rotation and cover crops, no-till farming, reducing fertilizer and pesticide use and increasing soil biodiversity through compost additions and well-managed livestock grazing practices—ideally, many of those tactics working together in concert.
It’s not really reinventing the farming wheel. These practices have been around for decades or longer, but using them together is the goal. Unfortunately, a commercial farmer doesn’t always have the financial incentive to invest in natural soil additions, plant a non-harvested cover crop in a field that could generate income or take the short-term risk of not using pesticides.
Wolfrum was put in touch with Indigo Agriculture through Dogfish Head Brewery in Rehoboth, Delaware. A chance meeting at the Brewers’ Association Craft Brewers Conference had him talking with the lead brewer at Dogfish Head’s small-batch/brewpub facility, and they found their interests aligned. Together, they worked on a project released in September 2020, Dogfish Head’s “Re-Gen-Ale, the first traceably sourced beer to address climate change.” With the help of Indigo Agriculture’s grain marketplace, Dogfish Head purchased raw regeneratively farmed wheat, hops from several local farms on the East Coat and barley from Epiphany. In doing so, they created a traceably sourced beer with a small carbon footprint. Dogfish Head also committed to purchasing carbon credits to offset the production of brewing the beer.
When Wolfrum learned about Indigo’s regenerative programs, he immediately got in touch with his local growers. In 2020, three of Epiphany’s farm sources began working with Indigo Agriculture, farming regeneratively to provide a carbon-neutral, or even carbon negative, source of barley for Epiphany’s malting operation. It hasn’t been a difficult sell. “Talking to these farmers, no matter where they are—in eastern North Carolina or Virginia—you don’t need to explain it to them. They live it. They know that it’s not going to get easier to grow anything without some work,” he says.
Other farms they work with provide heirloom corn and rice as well. So far, it’s a small sliver of Epiphany’s output—in 2021, the entire crop of regeneratively farmed malt is spoken for by just two of his customers—but his plans do not end there.
Wolfrum has started to build financial incentives for farmers into his own business plan, paying more per pound of grain to incentivize his farmers to add at least one regenerative practice into their operation. As Epiphany grows, he plans to create a contract with each grower that requires them to add regenerative farming practices into their operation but also ensures that they’re compensated for doing so. “We will pay for it,” he says, “We’re going to pay a little bit more because we expect you to do the right thing.”
He hopes that he can also convince brewery and distillery partners to do their part to reduce their carbon footprint in freight and their day-to-day operations as well.
According to Epiphany’s Three-Year Resilience Plan, in 2020, “each pound of malt produced by Epiphany produced 0.93 lbs of CO2,” so the company bought carbon credits to offset all 421 metric tons of CO2 produced, officially making Epiphany Craft Malt a carbon-neutral craft maltster.
Epiphany’s virtuous cycle doesn’t end at carbon credits, however. In 2020, they started working with two farmers who grow heirloom and ancient grains—both corn and rice. Wolfrum recognizes, however, that some of these grains have complicated pasts.
The origin of the heirloom corn that Epiphany sources can be traced back to Native American tribes of Virginia, and the heirloom rice was first brought to the Americas and flourished as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. “If we want to help create beers that incorporate these grains,” Wolfrum says, “we have to turn our attention toward understanding the injustice at their roots.”
Because of that, Epiphany donates a portion of the sales of each of these grains to appropriate organizations. For the corn, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, which helps to increase the representation of Native Americans in STEM. For the rice, Epiphany donates to a local charity, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
“At the moment, it’s really small scale, and we’re not a very big player,” Wolfrum says. “Could I use those couple thousand dollars we spend on [incentives, carbon credits, and donations] for something else? Sure. But you have to start somewhere. That’s my perspective. It’s not perfect, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Learn more about Epiphany Malting, the grain and malt they offer and read their Three-Year Resilience Plan at www.epiphanymalt.com
Learn more about Indigo Agriculture and its grain marketplace at www.indigoag.com
Erik Lars Myers is an entrepreneur, author, professional brewer, and lover of beer. He currently works as an independent consultant in the brewing industry in Durham, NC where he strives toward innovation in fermentation through a wide variety of projects.