By Dustin Gouker
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The harvest this year at Mecca Grade Estate Malt was more about the future than the present.
After harvesting a full 300 acres of Full Pint barley and overproducing in 2016 to fill up its storage, the farm and malthouse outside of Madras grew by just 40 acres this year.
But in that same field were 30 different selections for The Next Pint Project, a partnership with Oregon State University for breeding a new variety of barley that will eventually be used by Mecca Grade. (The Full Pint variety was also bred by OSU.)
It was the second of a three-year program. Last year, there were 130 crosses planted at the farm, whittled down to 30 this season based on a variety of factors, eliminating strains that didn’t work out.
After this year’s harvest, the field is down to eight, with the goal of selecting one variety that the farm will produce moving forward, according to co-founder Seth Klann.
“The selection criteria will be based on finished beer for that variety,” said Klann. “We’re looking for something bred exclusively for our conditions in Central Oregon, our irrigation, and hopefully we find some sort of unique flavor, because that’s what it’s all about.”
Barley is often an afterthought for breweries, but Mecca Grade — which raises its own barley and also malts it on the premises — is trying to change that. Most malt for brewing in North America comes from a few large producers. But by farming its own unique barley and malting it, the business is creating a niche for itself in the craft brew industry.
“Because we’re an estate malt house, people ask us ‘Well does all your stuff come from your own farm?’ And I answer ‘Yes,’” said Klann, who runs the farm with his father. “And I think it surprises a lot of people, because even other craft malt houses are having to source from all over the place.
“So everything comes off of our own family farm. And I know that it limits production, but on the other hand the only people that are invested in it are me and my dad,” Klann continued. “We’re not set up to have explosive growth and become this huge thing, and I know the brewers we work with don’t want that either. So as long as we can keep things slow and steady and putting out really rare reserved malt, that’s what we are going to do.”
The list of brewers and beers using Mecca Grade’s malts is constantly growing. (You can see a full lineup on the website.) The Ale Apothecary in Bend now makes all its beer with Mecca Grade malt. Yachats Brewing on the coast uses it for about 95 percent of its beer, according to Klann.
This fall, you’ll see beers using this year’s harvest at Hood River’s pFriem Family Brewers and Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, Klann said. Deschutes Brewery, which has produced several beers using Mecca Grade’s product, has another beer in the making that will feature the farm’s crop.
“We’re going through the process of getting all of our barley certified Salmon-Safe, and that’s been big for Deschutes, and it’s been big for Crux [Fermentation Project],” Klann said.
But Oregon craft breweries are not the only destination for Mecca Grade’s malt. About half of it goes to California; its pilsner-style malts are being used in hazy IPAs.
“Our malt is definitely not cheap, and I think in Oregon the price is going up, but it kind of prohibits people from experimenting with better and more local ingredients,” Klann said. “But down there the price has already gone up, so people are just kind of chasing after the next secret ingredient for making better beer.”
Beer makers as far away as Allagash Brewing Company in Maine have also used Mecca Grade.
If you’re looking for Mecca Grade malt for your homebrew, you can find it at retailers in Portland (F.H. Steinbart Co.), Bend (The Brew Shop) and Corvallis (Corvallis Brewing Supply).
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.