Friday, December 17, 2010

Why Wait for OSU? Yamhill Farm to Begin Malting Barley

Gail Oberst of the Yamhill Valley News Register has the story:

Within a few months, fifth-generation farmer Zach Christensen, 33, is planning to launch a malting operation on his family’s Bellevue-area farm.

That could make him the most popular man in Yamhill County — at least among craft beer brewers. Today, a craft brewer seeking a small lot of Oregon-grown and processed malted grain has only one option — make it himself.

Christensen Farms Malting Company is about to change everything by opening one of the first new small malting operations in Oregon. It aims to become the first commercial operation capable of supplying small batches of site-malted Willamette Valley grain.

Malted grain is typically the principal ingredient in beer. It can be made from either barley or wheat.

The malting process requires steeping the grain in water, spreading it in a hothouse environment to germinate, then using kilns to dry and cure it. The process creates sugars that beer requires for fermentation, but is extremely labor-intensive, requiring expert attention at every step for a matter of weeks.

The nearest commercial supplier is the Great Western Malting Co., based in Vancouver, Wash. It sells malted grain in lots averaging 300 tons each.

Craft malting operations were common when most brewing was local. They disappeared when brewing went big time, but are beginning to make a comeback on the strength of the craft movement.

Some of the larger craft brewers, like Rogue, have purchased Oregon farms capable of growing and processing all of the ingredients they need. Like winemakers, who speak lovingly of “terroir,” they are looking to establish consistent taste variations that will distinguish them from competitors.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Rogue is calling this “dirtoir,” and has taken to giving made-up appellation names to its farms.

Christensen’s alma mater, Oregon State University, is currently working on small-scale malting techniques that can be used on Oregon-grown barley. But he is the first to move that direction commercially, hoping to supply the bulk of craft brewers operating on a smaller scale than Rogue.

Christensen said he became interested in malting when the brewer at House Spirits, a Portland craft distiller, asked him to malt some Willamette Valley barley for a custom whiskey.

He took the challenge and ran with it. Today, he is working with Anders Johansen, a McMinnville distiller and brewer who moved back home after developing breweries in Southern Oregon.

Christensen is now making the final adjustments to a smaller-sized steeper, germinator and kiln system to turn out a product Johansen can use in his Dolman’s Worker Bee distillery. Once they have the pilot system perfect, they plan to develop a system capable of processing up to 10 tons at a time.


Christensen developed the pilot plant in a 5,000-square-foot building on his farm. He intends to use it to house the larger-scale system to come as well.

He already figures he has nearly $100,000 tied up in the venture, not to mention months of work. So if anything, he’s understating the case when he says, “Malting isn’t for everyone.”

But it is, apparently, for him. And that has craftsmen like Rick Allen of Heater Allen Brewery and Mark Vickery of Golden Valley Brewery salivating at the prospect.

Vickery, who helped get the Deschutes Brewery started in its early days, was so excited he rode the combine with Christensen when he cut his barley this summer.

Despite the buzz, Christensen refuses to be rushed. He said he wants to make sure he’s capable of consistently turning out a high quality product before he gets totally committed.

He said the family’s farm has survived since 1902 by producing a sustainable, certified and quality product. When and only when he knows the product is good, he said, will consumers be able to look for Heritage Malts from Christensen Farms in their local brews.

Meanwhile, they can check out for updates.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “The sky’s the limit.”

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