THERE'S A REASON most breweries stopped malting their own grain about 100 years ago: It's really hard work.
Just ask Andrea Stanley, a 34-year-old mother of three from Hadley, Mass., who partnered with her husband, Christian, last year to open their own micro malt house.
"Sixty percent of what we do," she sighed, "is seed cleaning."
They clean the grain when it comes off the field. They separate the seeds by size. They remove the tiny rootlets that grow during germination. They hand-turn 2,000-pound batches of grain with a shovel.
Or ask Lance Jergensen, who runs tiny Rebel Malting in Reno, Nev. When I spoke with him by telephone last month, he was just coming off an overnight shift, babysitting the roaster to make sure the gas flame didn't extinguish.
The essential ingredient in beer - the barley malt that provides flavor and color - mostly comes from huge suppliers who purchase grain from mega-farms, analyze it in high-tech laboratories, steep it in automated germination vessels, kiln it in roasters the size of Mack trucks and ship it around the world by rail and sea. It is agribusiness at its most efficient and expansive.
"When we started looking into what it takes to make an entirely local beer," said Stanley, "we realized there were very few small malt houses, and certainly none east of the Mississippi. We were kind of amazed at that and wondered why."
Mainly, it's because barley is grown on sprawling farmland in the West and Midwest. So Stanley's company, Valley Malt, has begun contracting with farmers in New England to grow barley and other grains.
Their output is microscopic. In their second year, the couple expects to double it to 100 tons of malt - a quantity equal to what Cargill, the multinational food supplier, produces worldwide every 35 minutes.
The small scale, though, is kind of the point for the handful of micro malt houses that have cropped up in recent years, from West Virginia to Michigan to Oregon. By making batches as small as 100 pounds, they can supply brewers with decidedly unusual specs.
"A lot of brewers want different types of grain malted," said Jergensen, who started his malt house in 2004, "but the tonnage requirement at large malt houses is so big, it's not feasible. That's where I figured the niche would be: small runs of custom grains."
Some brewers seek specific malts to produce unique flavor, aroma or color profiles. Others are after unusual grains - millet and buckwheat, for example - for gluten-free beers.
"We've been doing some really funky things," Stanley said. "Some special smoked malts, crystal triticale [a hybrid of rye and wheat], malted millet, spelt . . . "
Delaware's Dogfish Head brewery used Valley Malt's winter wheat for a saison-style ale called Noble Rot. "It had nice, spicy notes," the brewery's president, Sam Calagione, said of the grain. "It's cool to see the locavore movement stretching into micro malting. . . . They have a great opportunity to be [as] adventurous with malting as craft brewers are with brewing."
That adventurous spirit isn't just about improving the flavor of beer, however, for small brewers have done quite well for decades with mainstream, big-factory grains. Rather, like the small hops farms that have cropped up over the last five years, the micro-malting business is about taking a step back and getting closer to our source of food.
"Going out and watching the planting and then the growing season and then the harvest, that by far outweighs all of the labor and the long nights of staying up during the kilning process," said Jergensen. "It's definitely worth the effort."