For too long now, malt has played second fiddle to hops in the craft brewing world. That’s slowly changing as many brewers recognize its contribution to not only the color but also the flavor, texture and aroma of a beer.
Gold Rush Malt in Baker City is a small malting company that caters to brewers who seek out premium malt with the same passion they direct to hops. Tom Hutchison buys the barley for the business, preferring Full Pint, a variety developed by Oregon State University, and Cerveza, developed in Canada.
“Cerveza didn’t really catch on, even though it makes an excellent malt with high extract,” said Hutchison. “As far as I know, I’m the only source of malted Cerveza in the United States and Canada. Probably in the world.”
He sells mostly to local brewers, those who appreciate the flavor different Gold Rush products add to their beer. “Because we’re small, our malt costs twice as much,” he said. That’s a minimal difference when you consider that about 20 cents in a pint of beer is malt.
Hutchison malts the barley as he sells it, meaning it’s very fresh. “I like to keep the inventory at around one to two months, or less than that,” he said. A maltster his size can identify the barley down to the farmer, the field and the variety. That’s a big difference from the generic malts available through large distributors. In this area, Great Western Malt in Vancouver, Wash. is the large regional distributor. They typically use 35,000 pounds of barley in a batch and ship their pallets to Portland for $50. Hutchison uses 5,000 pounds of raw grain in a batch and ships a pallet to Portland for $100.
Hutchison grew up in Pilot Rock, near Pendleton, on a family farm that raised grain and cattle. He earned an agricultural engineering degree at OSU and Hutchison uses the combination of his academic and agricultural skills to help build the business. “My mission is to add value to local agriculture,” he said. He wanted to develop an agricultural product, add value and keep the money in the local economy.
Hutchison contracts with local farmers for their barley, paying them twice the going rate. He needs quality, not quantity, and small amounts are less efficient and harder to accommodate. His contracts fulfill his mission of giving farmers more value for their product. The cycle continues. He makes money and spends it locally. His malt goes to local brewers. They add value, sell locally, make money and spend it locally.
Hutchison’s original plan was to start a distillery, something he researched for nearly six months, but eventually abandoned that idea. Instead, he decided on malt. He built a small pilot malting unit in preparation for scaling up. “I use it for testing, malting 15 pounds at a time,” he said. He also attended a malting program in Winnipeg at the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre, where he found the visits to local malt houses informative and helpful.
Finding the right equipment scaled to his needs was impossible, so he turned to a company in Canby to design and custom fabricate his malter. “The equipment includes a steeping tank to start the germination process and a drum to finish germination and dry the malt,” said Hutchison. “There are no models for a system like this; nobody else in the United States has one. From design to implementation, it took about two years.”
The malting process itself takes a little more than a week. The barley grain is harvested in early August and stored on the farm until Hutchison is ready to use it. Then it goes to a seed cleaner in Imbler. They pre-clean the grain and put it in 1-ton bags. The first stage involves loading the grain in the steeping tank where it’s soaked in water, aerated, then rested. These steps are repeated three times over two days to increase the moisture content in the grain. Germination begins but it’s then halted by blowing hot air on the grain, which is then dried down to 4 percent moisture. During the kilning step, a higher temperature produces a darker malt. Finally, the malt is poured into 50-pound bags.
You can sample beer made with Gold Rush Malt at Barley Brown’s in Baker City, Side A in La Grande, Prodigal Son in Pendleton, 1188 in John Day, Steens Mountain in Burns as well as Ex Novo and Labrewatory in Portland. •