At its peak just after the Civil War, Michigan farmers harvested some 300,000 acres of barley to feed livestock.
Today, a revival in barley production could soon serve a higher calling – feeding Michigan’s burgeoning craft brewing and distilling industries.
But there’s a bottleneck: The state does not have enough malting companies to meet demand for Michigan-made beer and whiskey. Barley must be slowly malted before it can be fermented. But Michigan has only two craft malting operations, which process a small portion of the malt that artisan breweries and distilleries in the state will need.
So far, little has been done to figure out how to get more local entrepreneurs involved in malting.
“There is a history of growing barley in this state. I think the potential is there,” said J. Robert Sirrine of the Michigan State University Extension in Leelanau County.
“But if a company like Bell's is interested, they are not going to just make 10 barrels of beer,” he said of the Kalamazoo beer maker. “There has to be more (malting) capacity.”
A booze boom
The distribution model is simple: Farmers harvest the barley and wheat. Malting companies then prepare the grains for fermentation. Brewers and distillers take it from there.
But the demand for locally crafted beer and whiskey has exposed Michigan’s shortage of middlemen.
The Michigan Brewers Guild estimates there are now about 140 breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs in the state, fifth in the nation. There were three in 1991. Another 40 may launch this year, adding to an industry the guild estimates pumped more than $130 million into the state’s economy in 2012.
The Michigan Brewers Guild website has a locator map showing every brewery and brewpub in the state
Michigan is also home to more than two dozen distilleries from just a handful five years ago, thanks to a 2008 state law that allows small distilleries to produce up to 60,000 gallons of alcohol a year with a license fee of just $100. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation estimates this industry could add $400 million to the state economy.
This has led Michigan farmers to turn a sharper focus to barley, wheat, rye and even hops – the plant that adds bitterness to beer – to meet demand.
As late as the 1980s, Stroh Brewery in Detroit bought barley harvested from tens of thousands of acres in the state, according to Ashley McFarland of MSU's Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center. The brewery closed in 1985, but farmers are eager to get back in the game.
“We have farmers in the Lower Peninsula and in the Upper Peninsula who want to get barley in the ground this spring,” McFarland said.
At the moment, however, the state has only two malt-makers – Michigan Malt in tiny Shepherd, just south of Mount Pleasant, and Pilot Malt House in Jenison, though a third company is making plans to open.
Malting is an intense, specialized process. The barley or wheat is steeped in water until seeds begin to emerge. The grains are then roasted to halt germination, with the length of roasting time influencing the color and flavor of the malt. The process releases enzymes that modify starches into sugars, preparing the malt for brewing or distilling.
With the backing of MSU, the Brewers Guild applied for a $260,000 state agriculture grant last year to study the economics of a large malting plant for brewing and to conduct barley field tests in locations throughout Michigan. But that grant lost out to grants for big-market crops like corn and soybeans.
MSU has also conducted test plots of barley in the Upper Peninsula in recent years to see if it is fit for brewing. McFarland said results are promising.
A growing niche
Erik May is not waiting for feasibility studies.
May, co-founder of Pilot Malt House, southwest of Grand Rapids, is convinced the growth curve for local barley will continue to point upwards.
“Five months ago, we were doing three-pound batches in my partner's kitchen,” he said. “Now we are doing 2,300 pounds a week.”
May, 32, said the operation grew out of a conversation he had with partner Paul Schelhaas, a home brewer, about the origins of beer.
“We were doing some of his home brew and we got into a discussion about what beer is, where it comes from, where it is made, that kind of thing.”
Pilot Malt House supplies about a half-dozen craft breweries in Michigan. In its first year, it processed about 10 acres of barley. It expects to increase that to 60 to 80 acres this year.
“We will be outgrowing our facility by next summer,” he said.
For the time being, malting is May's second occupation. By day, he is a fulltime employee of the Michigan Army National Guard. “I would like to do this fulltime,” he said.
In Leelanau County, Alison Babb is laying plans to open what would be Michigan’s third malt-maker, Empire Malting Company, in the fall. She foresees more brewers looking to market all-Michigan beers. More than a dozen of the state's craft brewers already use Michigan hops.
“It's an exciting time to be part of this,” Babb said. “Hopefully our company will help to stimulate ingredients that are crafted for the brewers to use locally. It adds authenticity. It adds reliability.”
Local grains, fresher taste
Brewers and distillers alike see advantages to buying local.
Grand Traverse Distillery in Traverse City – which has collected national awards for its premium vodka and whiskey – buys 100 percent of its wheat, rye and corn from a nearby farmer. It expected to use one million pounds of Michigan-grown crops in 2013.
At Rockford Brewing Company in Kent County, White Pine Wheat has been on tap since the brewpub opened a year ago. The spicy beer is brewed with Michigan wheat malted at Michigan Malt, run by its founder Wendell Banks.
Rockford head brewer Jeff Sheehan likes the results.
“The benefit for us is that it is so close and so fresh,” Sheehan said of Banks’ malting company. “He roasts it and malts it days before he ships it to us.”
Sheehan is plotting another Michigan beer, to be called Michigan Pale Ale, a style inspired by India Pale Ale, a hop-heavy variety said to have been originally brewed for long British sea voyages to India.
“We hope that one day people will come in and order an MPA,” he said, “just like they do an IPA.