Without farmers, there would be no beer. I believe it's important for lovers of beer like me (and you too) to understand as fully as possible the relationship between agriculture and the beer in our glass. We've all heard the phrases 'farm to table' or 'farm to glass,' but what does it really mean? It's easy to get excited about the 'glass' side; it's right in front of us and usually tickles our taste buds in fascinating ways. But whose farm did it come from and is that connection a good one?
I myself am still trying to understand this complex relationship, so when I heard from James Weed, Owner and Maltster at Solstice Malt, that it was a good year for Utah barley, I asked to know more. “There's good years and bad years in grain,” he answered, “and these come in multiple ways of, 'it's too hot,' or 'it's too dry,' or 'it's too wet.' Farmers have a hard job, and sometimes a lot of it is just luck.” The realities of desert agriculture can be mind-boggling if you're not used to them. “Other things like microorganisms or even a random storm that comes through can just destroy a crop,” he elaborated.
Weed left a career in finance several years ago to explore a passion for the ingredient that's most taken for granted in beer. Plenty of people are fanatics about hops, yeast, fruit, wood, souring bacteria or some combination thereof, but how many people really geek out on barley malt? And gaining knowledge about malt inextricably comes with gaining knowledge about how the barley is grown. “I've learned to respect farmers a lot,” he says. “I don't have an agricultural background, and so learning that side of it–it's almost like they have another language. The way that they have been doing it for five generations for a certain crop.”
Solstice Malt is the first malting operation to exist in Utah in almost 100 years and is now supplying a host of Utah's brewers and distillers. Weed's malt is 'floor malted,' which is exactly what it sounds like: laying the soaked grain out on a clean floor in climate-controlled conditions to allow germination. It is hand raked and tended carefully, every eight hours, to ensure uniform growth of the tiny rootlets. It is then hand-shoveled into his kiln, where the germination is stopped and the target moisture content and color for the batch are reached using carefully managed dry heat. This method is labor intensive and correspondingly expensive but Weed remains committed to doing things old school. The resulting aroma in Solstice's warehouse is something every brewer should know and lust after.
So a 'good year' is simply one where none of the many potential agricultural disasters actually occur and farmers reach harvest at or above their projected yield. These vulnerabilities are regional: a weather system that adversely affects one farm is likely to do the same to its neighbor. Weed works closely with farmers, and is always looking to expand his network of suppliers. “This year, I actually got lucky,” he says. “I found another spot to grow Utah barley that's not in Cache Valley. So I've been able to diversify my area in case of storm or disease.”
The majority of barley that Solstice malts usually comes from around Logan, Utah, but by adding another farm in a different region closer to Vernal, Weed is protecting his supply chain. “I've got wheat out of Nephi, I've got a spelt farmer I'm trying to get in,” he explains of his connections. By selling to Solstice on a yearly contract, the farmers are guaranteed a certain amount of income and a good price, regardless of the year. In especially good years like this one, excess can be sold as feed or to other, larger malting operations out of state.
For many of Solstice Malt's suppliers, working with Weed is the first time they've grown grain for malting, and some of them don't see the value right away. “I reached out to [a new supplier] a year and a half ago,” Weed remembers. “And then when I started offering them twice the price they'd get for feed barley, they said, 'Yeah, we can make that work.'” Because his model is small and he makes a premium product, Weed can provide these farmers with a revenue stream they'd never before considered. Feed barley is also typically grown for protein content, valuable for the nourishment of livestock, but achieved with the use of expensive nitrogen-based fertilizers. Brewers actually prefer grains with lower protein, which means additional benefits to the farmers. “I've been able to save farmers money on their fertilizer costs,” says Weed proudly. He and others like him are helping to literally change the ecology of growing grain in the Western United States. And the impact goes beyond simple business. “Some of my byproducts, the rootlets, and some of my thins that don't meet brewer specification, they'll get sent back to the farm for feed,” Weed chuckles. “And they'll throw me some cuts of meat. It's been very reciprocal, my relationship with the farmers.”
'Reciprocal' is exactly the word I think we should be striving for in our relationship to agriculture. My first experience of this kind was at the annual Idaho Falls Beer Festival. I was running Proper Brewing Company at the time and enjoying a beer at Idaho Falls Brewing Company after a long day of judging for the festival's attached competition when a man named Jake Burtenshaw approached me to talk about his new company, Mountain Malt. Burtenshaw's family had been growing barley in Eastern Idaho for generations, mostly selling it to several large malting plants in the area. He figured he'd cut out the middle man, make malt himself, and sell it directly to the brewers. I tried his product, liked it, and then a year later visited his operation to see how it was done.
The smell hit me first when walking in to Burtenshaw's malting house and it's something I'll never forget. It smelled like beer, but not quite. Like grinding malt, but not quite. It was lush and dank and green and fresh and bready all at the same time. After seeing his techniques, we walked outside to the adjacent fields. The barley was young at this point in early June, not even knee height. But we pulled a stalk or two and chewed them, and I tasted everything that would become a part of my beer. It was an epiphany moment for me.
Weed had his own similar moment after starting Solstice Malt. “I was driving by one of the fields that produces barley for me, and I remember thinking, 'that's where the beer I drink comes from,' and it really hit me,” Weed reminisces. “There is a connection, it comes from the earth, it's sunshine energy and it's pretty amazing what we've been able to do with it.” He gets the same dreamy but excited look on his face when he recalls it as I do when I recall mine–you can tell it was profound and affecting. These are the types of experiences that I think are integral to being a beer enthusiast. Just like a chef should know where the ingredients that go on the plate come from, a brewer, distiller, or anyone in the beverage industry should have real connections with their sources. With this kind of personal attachment between the Utah beer drinker, the Utah brewer, the Utah maltster and the Utah farmer, we can make 'farm to glass,' not just a buzz-worthy selling point, but a way of life and affect the future of our state for the better.