Michigan-made malt is pricey, but makes great booze

About a dozen years ago, Wendell Banks shared a revelation with friends.

He called it a farmhouse ale, a small-batch beer he brewed with hops and barley he grew on his small Isabella County farm. He bottled up 10 gallons and passed it around.

“We were real excited about it. They thought I was a genius,” recalled Banks.

It is a vision that still stirs his senses today. “I only do this because I love it,”said Banks, 49.

Banks runs Michigan Malt, one of two small malting operations in Michigan that supply malt from Michigan barley or wheat to craft breweries and distilleries around the state.

The challenge: Banks’ company charges about 80 cents a pound to malt the grain while larger, out-of-state suppliers sell it for about 35 cents. Banks is out to convince the craft brewers and distillers he sells to – not to mention the drinking public – that adding locally malted grain to artisanal Michigan beer or whiskey is worth the price.

At New Holland Brewing Co. in Holland, it seems to be. “We get tremendous response,” said New Holland vice president Fred Bueltmann. “People really respond positively to the flavor.”

New Holland, which is both a distillery and craft brewer, features Bill's Michigan Wheat whiskey, distilled from malt supplied by Michigan Malt. It also sells several beers made with Michigan grains and hops.

“Ten years ago, people were surprised that beer was made in Michigan, let alone brewed with ingredients grown in Michigan,” Bueltmann said. “We see the same thing in distilling.”

Banks estimates he processed about 50 tons of malt in 2013, germinated on the floor of a 50-by-100-foot barn in the Village of Shepherd in Isabella County. Selling to some 20 different craft brewers, he expects to double production this year.

But Banks sees a ceiling to his growth if consumer demand does not continue to grow. To that end, he hopes to persuade each of the state's craft brewers to dedicate at least one of their taps to an all-Michigan beer -- with every last ingredient Michigan made, from the grains to the hops, yeast, water and, depending on the beer, fruits and honey. He'd like to see a Pure Michigan ad campaign that promotes all-Michigan beers and spirits.

Banks’ passion for local ingredients began when he attended college in California in the late 1980s.

Banks picked up an interest in organic farming in California and returned to Michigan determined to give it a try. For several years, he supplied organic tomatoes, peppers, summer squash and zucchini to Meijer Inc.

In 2000, a month after he brewed his first all-Michigan ale, he was hired to supervise brewing at Mountain Town Station, a microbrewery in Mount Pleasant. He did that for eight years.

In 2003, he obtained a federal grant to travel to the Netherlands, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to soak in the nuances of small-scale malting and brewing. And in 2009, he launched Michigan Malt.

Banks doubts it will make him rich, but that seems unlikely to stop him.

“I love what I do,” he said. “I really want this to be successful for the state.”

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