Barley growers make malt for Minnesota brewers
CROOKSTON, Minn. -- Barley grown outside of Fisher, Minn., is finding its way into the region’s craft beers.
Vertical Malt, a startup business in Crookston run by Adam Wagner and his father, Tim, uses barley grown on the Wagner farmland between Grand Forks, N.D., and Crookston to create malt, a main ingredient in beer. The business has been operating for a year in the Valley Technology Park, a city-owned startup incubator, and has sent its products to craft breweries in the area.
A homebrewer himself, Adam Wagner said the malting operation started with an idea for a brewery using ingredients from the farm. But the amount of work involved in malting barley itself led the Wagners to focus on that part of the process instead.
“There’s a big difference between your hard barley kernels that are coming off of the field and a product that can be used, that is suitable for brewing,” he said.
Vertical Malt’s launch comes at a time when Minnesota has seen a drastic jump in craft beer popularity. The state tallied 105 breweries last year, up from 35 in 2011, according to the Brewers Association.
Wagner’s business is still in “startup mode,” he said, but they are working on plans for larger equipment that will increase the operation’s capacity. In the meantime, they’ve sold their product to breweries such as Junkyard Brewing Co. in Moorhead and Bemidji Brewing Co.
“I think especially in craft brewing, it’s gotten to the point where people are searching for locality and local businesses and local ingredients,” said Dan Juhnke, Junkyard’s co-owner and brewer.
Barley like that used at Vertical Malt is an important ingredient in beer. Malted barley provides “complex carbohydrates and sugars necessary for fermentation,” according to Briess Malt & Ingredients Co.
Using equipment designed and built with the help of Young Manufacturing in Grand Forks, Vertical Malt takes the barley from the field and turns it into a brew-ready product.
Bemidji Brewing Co. used that for its Vertical One: Pale Ale, said head brewer Tom Hill. He said they were attracted to Vertical Malt for its local and fresh ingredients, adding the Wagners have been “adamant” about providing analysis on their malts.
“As a brewer, it’s just so helpful for us to see some data and some numbers on the ingredient and what we can expect out of it for yield and color,” Hill said. “Something like Vertical Malt just gives us access to a unique ingredient that is still high quality.”
Most breweries don’t malt their own barley, Wagner said. Instead, they turn to large suppliers such as Brewers Supply Group.
Wagner hopes the local nature of their barley is attractive to craft breweries, who could in turn advertise that they use local ingredients. Vertical Malt is also able to customize batches of malt for its customers, he said.
“We believe that there’s something to be said for knowing where your food comes from,” he said. “We’re at an advantage here just because growing conditions, our climate, are good for barley.”
Wagner wants Vertical Malt to expand in the coming years to focus on the regional market.
“We’re not looking to supply 100 percent of people’s base malts -- there’s a lot of breweries out there that consume a lot of grain,” he said. “We’d like to establish ourselves as a very local player at least and then see how that goes.”