Made-in-P.E.I. malt could be coming soon to a beer near you
Two new malting business have recently sprouted on P.E.I.
Two new businesses on P.E.I. have begun creating malt for the craft brewing industry — Shoreline Malting in Summerside and Island Malt House in New Glasgow.
The malting process turns raw grains into malt, one of the key ingredients in brewing craft beer. And the craft beer business is booming in the Atlantic provinces.
"I've loved craft beer, I've always drank craft beer from the time it first appeared here," said John Webster, one of the partners in Shoreline Malting in Summerside's Slemon Park. Partner Trent Caseley grows the grains (he owns Spring Valley Farms) and Jansen Clark is the operation's "maltster" — the man in charge of malting.
'Really excited to get this going'
Both malting companies noticed the same thing at the same time: while craft beer is all about locally made products including hops, most of the malt barley used in Atlantic Canada is sourced in western Canada — so producing local malt seemed like a natural opportunity.
"I thought it was an important gap to fill," said Webster, noting there are lots of cereal crops grown on P.E.I. and farmers with expertise, equipment and interest in getting a slightly better return for their crop.
Shoreline Malting has been a work in progress for several years — they weren't even sure malting barley could be grown here.
Caseley began experimenting with growing it in 2014 and the men researched the process and market interest for a few years before building a malt house in Slemon Park last year. They're now producing and have sold six or seven tonnes of malt so far.
"We're really excited to get this going and build those connections with the community," Webster said.
'One last kick' at farming
Island Malt House has also taken the last several years to get up and running — it began producing malting barley and wheat last fall.
Redmer Renkema, 24, and his father used to farm hogs and grain, and he said they wanted "one last kick at the bucket for the farming."
"It was close to farming, it was close to our background, and we know a lot about grains and such," he said. They've renovated a former machine barn on their property for their malt house.
Renkema took a course in malting at the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre in Winnipeg.
They've had sales to 13 breweries so far, including most the breweries on P.E.I., Renkema said, and feedback has been positive.
3rd malting business 'on hold'
A Summerside couple had been working on starting the Island's first malting business in Abrams Village in 2017.
Iain MacInnes and Karine Gallant even won $10,000 to begin the project from a Dragon's Den-like contest hosted by RDÉE, a francophone economic development council.
"We needed to put the project on hold until we could generate the capital required to do the necessary modifications to both the building and our equipment," MacInnes told CBC News.
Breaking into local market
Rekema and Webster are dealing with the same issue when it comes to sales — breweries don't want to fiddle with existing recipes and risk changing a proven flavour with a new malt, so it's taking some time for them to work the new malts into their beer repertoire.
It's not an easy, slam-dunk thing — we've had to put a lot of time and effort into getting good at this.— John Webster
"We just started with most of them, so they all have to fit it in to their schedule and budgets — they like our [product] but they have to plan for us," Renkema said. He's been travelling the region visiting breweries and telling them about his product.
The "exploding" craft brewing industry in Newfoundland — with many companies starting their recipes from scratch — has meant sales there for Shoreline, Webster said. Successful collaboration with respected brewers 2 Crows in Nova Scotia has also generated interest in Shoreline's product from other parts of Canada, he said.
Craft brewers' favourite thing is their next limited-edition release with innovative spins on flavour profiles or hoppiness —Webster said he's hoping that spirit of exploration will lead brewers to their door looking for something new.
'Challenging' malting process
Creating malt is more involved than you might think, Webster explains. First you need just the right kind of grain — with low fungal disease, a certain amount of protein and a very high germination rate. Then you need optimal growing conditions — if malting barley gets too damp it can sprout on the stalk in the field, and it's ruined.
"We've got to make sure it meets all those specs for grade — if it doesn't, it goes for feed," said Webster. "So it means inherently that we are planting more acres than we need to make sure that we've got enough quantity of quality grains for the malting." To put it in context, he noted that in western Canada where conditions are ideal and they've been growing malting barley for a long time, only about half of the crop makes the grade.
"It's a little more challenging when you have a wetter, more humid environment" like P.E.I., he said. "This is why it's not an easy, slam-dunk thing — we've had to put a lot of time and effort into getting good at this."
The malting process is tricky too — they aim for the grain to reach 42 per cent moisture, without "drowning" it or drying it together in a hard clump, Webster said. The grain must start to grow, converting starches to sugars for the yeast to feed on during the brewing process.
Both companies steep the grain in tanks to get it to take up moisture, then germinate it — Shoreline uses a germinating unit, where Renkema uses a traditional floor malting process. Then each company will dry the grain and kiln it grain for colour — comparable to roasting coffee, but at lower temperatures.
Both companies gets their malt tested by independent labs to validate their quality to brewers.
Not an inexpensive proposition
Island Malt House received two grants from Innovation PEI of $10,000 and $30,000, Renkema said, which he said were used to purchase equipment.
Renkema has made this his full-time job and said he's able to produce about 260 tonnes of malt per year.
Shoreline received loans of $200,000 from ACOA and $625,000 from Farm Credit Canada, as well as some Innovation PEI grants including $10,000 for capital as well as some rental assistance for the first year.
Webster said Shoreline hopes to break even this year and turn a profit next year. It can produce about 170 tonnes per year, and has room to double that if demand increases.
Not worried about competition
Webster has a full-time job outside Shoreline for now, as does Caseley with his farm. Clark is the only one being paid a salary by the business to date, and they have hired one other employee.
"A lot of the last month or two has just been conversation with brewers explaining where we're at, showing the quality of the malt and illustrating that we're here now as an option for them, where they didn't have that in the past," said Webster.
Renkema is confident there is plenty of business for both malting companies.
"I believe there's enough room for all of us," he said, noting one brewery told him it plans to buy from both P.E.I. malt houses.
Both companies say they plan to malt not only barley but wheat, rye and oats, as well.