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Sunday, 26 April 2015 22:00

Reporter's Notebook: Maltsters expand the West Michigan craft beverage supply chain

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As Michigan hops production spiked in recent years, startups have begun to recognize a need for another key locally sourced beer (and spirits) ingredient: malted grain.

Most production craft breweries in Michigan contract with out-of-state sources for malted barley, largely because only two small maltsters currently operate in the state.

But that could soon be changing since four startup malthouses will likely begin operation by the end of 2015, according to Ashley McFarland, center coordinator for the Michigan State University Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center.

Maltsters in the planning stages include Great Lakes Malting Co. LLC and Empire Malting Co. — both of Traverse City — along with Motorcity Malthouse LLC in Shelby Township and Spring Arbor-based Arrowhead Malt House LLC.

Currently, only Byron Center-based Pilot Malt House LLC and Michigan Malt LLC of Shepard, near Mt. Pleasant, operate brewery-quality malthouses in the state.

But even with more local options, it’s unlikely that established regional craft brewers will entirely give up on their current malt wholesalers in favor of small startups. As with any agricultural product, growing grain for malting is susceptible to the inevitable whims of temperature changes and precipitation levels, and brewers need to maintain a diversified supply of the key ingredient in the case of localized crop damage.

That’s top of mind for many brewers right now given the widespread crop damage caused by large amounts of rain in the key barley-growing regions in the Northwest U.S. last fall.

Although brewers typically stick to certain strains of malted grain for the sake of product consistency, some used the current crisis as an opportunity to diversify their sources.

Case in point: Bell’s Brewery Inc. Director of Operations John Mallett said during a panel discussion at the 2015 Craft Brewers Conference in Portland, Ore. that the company worked with its supplier to bring in European barley.

While imported grain typically costs more, that wasn’t this case this year given the uncertainty about the domestic crop, said Mallett, the author of the newly published “Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse.”

If anything, the fledgling Michigan maltster community could provide a domestic hedge to the traditional growing areas, as well as offer smaller brewers more of a say in the process than they’d get from an international wholesaler.

Plus, the startups help bolster another piece of the craft brewing industry supply chain in the state. That means more jobs, more dollars back into the local economy and more local beer and spirits.

I’ll drink to that.

MiBiz Managing Editor Joe Boomgaard contributed to this report.

Read 5321 times Last modified on Sunday, 26 April 2015 22:30

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