GRAND RAPIDS — Despite being fairly complicated to brew, the ingredient list for most beers is pretty small. It’s as simple as water, hops and malt.
But up until recently, brewers in Michigan had a tough time sourcing two of those ingredients from within the state.
In a state that many beer-lovers have dubbed “the Third Coast” for craft brewing, the lack of access to local hops and malt has been a costly problem for many brewers. As local breweries continue to pop up around the state, many companies in the supply chain have also looked to localize their operations.
Enter Pilot Malt House LLC.
The West Michigan-based malter is currently based in Caledonia, but plans to move to a facility in Zeeland around April 1, said President Erik May.
“Pilot Malt House was established over a pretty simple discussion on what limited ingredients there are in beer and where they come from,” May said. “We began investigating where most malt comes from and started to realize there is almost no malting done in our state.”
May explained that malting is the process through which cereal grains are turned into a blend a of sugar and enzymes, which gives beer its alcoholic property.
“It’s science in action,” May said.
Once the science part is done, May and his business partner, Paul Schelhaas, hope to supply Michigan’s booming craft beer industry with locally sourced malt. Very little malt used by Michigan brewers comes from within the state, he said. The exceptions are Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, which does a little bit of malting for its own production, and a small batch malting company north of Lansing called the Michigan Malt Company.
However, May said this accounts for roughly two percent of the malt used in the state.
“We hope to work extensively in a collaborative role with the breweries that we service,” May said.
This localization of the supply chain could make quite a difference for the state’s burgeoning craft breweries, including Grand Rapids’ Brewery Vivant.
“We have a goal to try to source 50 percent of our ingredients locally,” said Jason Spaulding, co-owner of Brewery Vivant. “We had to back off our goal a little for the brewery.”
Brewery Vivant also has an upscale restaurant, with a mostly Belgian-inspired cuisine, that Spaulding figures into that percentage.
Spaulding said Brewery Vivant has used a fair amount of local hops, mainly provided by the Michigan Hop Alliance out of Traverse City, which he said has sold out of its crop for the time being. It takes growers about three years of growth to have a substantial crop, he said.
An in-state malter had largely been unavailable for breweries like Vivant, he added.
“We can grow the type of grain we need to brew with in Michigan called ‘two row’ barley. The problem is that we can’t use just the raw grain. We need malted grain,” Spaulding said in an email. “So to malt the grain, it has to be shipped to the closest malting company.
The closest ones are in Wisconsin … and (Minnesota). Once you pay to ship the grain to Wisconsin to malt it then ship it back, it is too cost-prohibitive. If we had a malting company here, then we could start using grain grown in Michigan for our beer.”
While craft brewing is the main focus right now for companies like Pilot, the company could also find an opportunity with in-state distilleries, such as New Holland Brewing Co. in Holland, Round Barn in Baroda and Grand Traverse Distillery in Traverse City.
“(Pilot) has been working extensively with craft distillers around the state to provide malt for their whiskeys. The traditional way to make malt for whiskey is to kiln it [applying heat and airflow] while the grain sits on a bed of peat moss,” May said.
Beyond whiskey, there are also a number of premium vodka distilleries.
“It would be great to have access to micro-malted grains from Michigan growers. I hope to see more grain milling and malting operations in the state,” said Rifino Valentine, founder and master distiller at Valentine Vodka in Ferndale. “When we start looking for malted grains that we know are sourced locally, it gets much more difficult.”
West Michigan-based economic development group The Right Place Inc., through its food processing work, has turned its attention to the lack of access to local malt and the high cost of raw materials for the craft brewing industry, said Tim Mroz, vice president of marketing and communications. To start, the group has worked particularly with hop farms.
“The Right Place has been trying to bring this budding industry around to a group of brewers … so that best practices can be created,” Mroz said. “We want to ensure that hop growing continues to be a viable industry.”
Mroz echoed Spaulding’s sentiments regarding the high costs associated with shipping in brewing ingredients.
“If we have 150 craft brewers around the state all importing ingredients, there’s a tremendous transportation cost,” Mroz said, noting the goal is to stop bringing in as much out-of-state ingredients as possible. “We call that import substitution.”
To encourage that trend, May said Pilot Malt House has set what he calls extremely lofty goals as part of its business plan.
“Our goal is to shoot to supply 30 percent of the grain bill for Michigan breweries,” May said.
Those 100-plus Michigan breweries need not only malt — which May and his partners at Pilot hope to supply — but also infrastructure materials including brewing tanks and fermenters. Lake Orion-based Craftwerk Brewing Systems has sprung up as a contender in that market, having done brewing systems for Jolly Pumpkin, Dragonmead and Grand Rapids Brewing Company, among others.
While Craftwerk is based on the east side of the state, Mroz is quite confident that between the number of breweries opening in West Michigan and the ingenuity of the region’s manufacturers — as well as the presence of Grand Valley State University’s engineering program — the region will soon see some booze-related manufacturing jobs in the Grand Rapids.