New Crookston Business Spotlight: Vertical Malt finds its niche
Let Adam Wagner be a reminder to everyone out there that there are many opportunities in one’s life to pivot and head in another direction, even an unexpected, slightly radical new direction.
Wagner, a Fisher High School graduate who attended college at the University of Minnesota Crookston and North Dakota State University and studied things like music (piano and vocal) and computer networking, is now crafting high-quality malting barley in a large bay at Valley Technology Park in Crookston to sell to breweries.
“I like the saying about being a Jack of all trades, but a master of none,” Wagner said. “What I’m trying to do here is be a master of one, and then see what happens.”
Wagner, along with his dad, Tim Wagner, from a longtime farming family near Fisher, are the brains behind Vertical Malt, which has them growing malting barley on their land and then bringing it to their facility at VTP and putting it through the processes necessary to make it ready for breweries to purchase.
It’s a complex process that will be whittled down some here: The barley is cleaned on the farm and then cleaned again at Vertical Malt. It’s sifted through so only uniformly sized kernels remain. The kernels are then soaked to kick-off the growing cycle and over two days they’re soaked, “air-rested” and soaked again. It allows the kernels to take up moisture and, as Adam says, “let the biology kick in.” The kernels start to convert starches to carbohydrates, and then it’s off to the “kiln vessel,” which emulates perfect outdoor growing conditions. “We’re letting the plant to the heavy lifting at this point,” Adam explained. A shoot grows out from under the kernel, and when it’s given up as much starch as it can, it’s removed from the kiln. “You don’t want a full-grown plant,” Adam said. Then the kernels are dried, cleaned and packaged.
“The key to all of it is high-quality malting barley,” Adam said. “That’s why we grow it ourselves. We know what we’re doing, so we know what we’ve got. That’s a nice advantage to have.”
Once the carbohydrate-rich malting barley is in the brewer’s hands, it’s soaked and fermented with yeast to form simple sugars, which results in alcohol.
Adam describes Vertical Malt as a “pilot system” that’s only been “fully online” for six months at this point, a business and processing concept still in its relative infancy. He still works on the family farm and has a part-time job to supplement his income. The days of paying himself a living wage, he said, are on the horizon but not here yet.
So if the pilot phase of Vertical Malt goes well, it will eventually need more space so it can produce more malting barley to meet the needs of the breweries who want it. Much of Vertical Malt’s current operation is housed in a single bay at VTP, but the Wagners have their eye on the empty bay next door to expand into and house larger soakers and kiln vessels.
Bemidji Brewing is a client, and Junkyard Brewing is a new client, too. Other breweries are interested and potentially interested, too, such as Rhombus Guys. But if new clients are happy with Vertical Malt’s barley, then expansion will be a must. To wit, Vertical Malt can produce 250 pounds of malting barley in a single batch in around seven days, but Bemidji Brewing needs 800 pounds for a single batch. “So that’s four weeks of processing here,” Adam said. Rhombus Guys? They need 1,200 pounds to brew a single batch.
So, instead of a kiln vessel three feet long, the Wagners want a 10-foot long vessel placed in the empty bay next door. “The target is 4,000-pound batches,” Adam said. “The plan is to learn our lessons, then grow.” That vision goes beyond the bay next door. Within two years, he said, the goal is to be moved out of VTP, either in an existing building, or a building built by Vertical Malt.
Along with an eye on growth, Adam wants Vertical Malt to be known as a processor capable of producing a variety of malting barley that would be the basis for a variety of beers, from basic lagers to craft beers of various colors and flavors.
“There are a lot of different variables on flavor that we could experiment with, just by altering temperature, time, malt types, roasting, enzyme activation...all kinds of things,” Adam said. “Brewers will take any ammo they can get that helps them craft a new product.”
Scaled back IDEA
Vertical Malt was one of the $10,000 winners in the IDEA Competition in 2015, two years after they entered the annual competition for regional entrepreneurs and didn’t win.
Adam said he knows why they didn’t win the first time.
“Our goal then was field to glass; we wanted to do everything,” he recalled. “As it turned out, that was an overly ambitious vision, because this is a very complex process and a lot to grasp.”
The IDEA judges, in offering feedback in 2013, thought Vertical Malt’s scope was simply too big, and might benefit from a more fine-tuned focus.
“So we figured, we know how to grow grain really well and we’ve grown it for a long, long time, so let’s focus on malting that barley,” Adam said.
Vertical Malt re-entered the competition last year with its more focused approach, and won.
“They were right,” Adam said. “I think we’re on the right track with what we’re doing now.”
Admitted beer nuts
Asked if he’s a beer nut, Adam lets out a little laugh, which means he is, and that’s part of the reason he and his dad have launched and are looking to expand Vertical Malt.
Adam said his interest in brewing goes back at least a decade, when he bought a book, “The Joy of Home Brewing.”
“It’s been downhill ever since,” he joked. “They say you can buy a man a beer and waste an hour, but teach a man to brew beer, and you waste a lifetime. But I’m OK with that at this point. We’ll see where this goes.”