By: Nicole Vulcan
"If hops were salt and pepper, malt would be the steak."
In case you were curious about the relative importance of each ingredient in your beer, that quote from Madras resident Seth Klann should set some things straight. Here's another way of putting it: Barley–and its resultant product, malt–is the bulk that makes up most of your beloved pint.
Klann should know; he and his family own the only malting facility in Central Oregon, operating on a farm that's been in the family since 1905. Klann got into the malt biz for a love of beer. When he returned from his undergraduate studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Klann began home brewing beer, often sourcing his malt from as far away as Germany. Outside his windows, meanwhile, spikes of barley swayed in the sun.
"I was looking out at this field and we're growing this stuff, so I thought why can't we be malting this stuff here locally?" Klann explains. That passing thought rapidly turned into a serious effort to not just grow his own barley for personal beer production, but also to provide an opportunity for local brewers and distillers to source their malt locally.
Until the Klanns dreamed up the Mecca Grade Estate Malt craft facility in Madras about four years ago, brewers' choices for local malt were nil. Today the Klanns are steadily growing their operation, patterning their facility off the estate winery model in which everything is grown on site and then turned into the end product at the same location. First comes the growing of barley; next is the steeping, germinating and drying of the grain to make malt.
"One of the big things is just kind of a reconnection with brewers and distillers to their raw ingredients, and that's been kind of the focus of the whole project," Klann says. It might seem like a no-brainer that brewers focused on the "local" schtick would source their ingredients locally—as they often do with hops—but when it comes to barley, it's not that simple.
"Most barley in the world is used for animal feed, but the feed market is notoriously fickle," says Dr. Patrick Hayes, an OSU professor of barley breeding and products. The challenge for farmers who could be producing barley in Central Oregon, Hayes says, is that other crops provide them with greater assured revenue. Not only that, but big malt suppliers, such as Great Western Malting in Vancouver, Wash., see a cost savings by using existing freighting channels–which don't include Madras or other places in Central Oregon.
"The reason they're not sourcing barley from Madras—a very good place for sourcing barley—is freighting it out of there is just not possible given current rates. It's actually cheaper for them to bring it in from south Idaho or Canada than it is even from the Willamette Valley," says Hayes.
That's not really an issue for Klann and his family, whose estate malt is often sold out even before it begins to steep in their malt house. Several local breweries, including Bend's Ale Apothecary, are already playing with Mecca Grade Estate Malts.
The Klanns have plans to scale their operation to continue to meet demand, yet for the time being, they're focused on providing offbeat varieties with a lot of flavor. The Klanns and Hayes, along with his research team, have partnered up to test various varieties, including OSU's "Half Pint" variety that's grown on the Klann farm.
Right now, hops continue to get the cred for being the flavor-producing factor in beer, but Klann, Hayes and other barleyphiles are working to get the word out about the "meaty" influence barley has on beer.
"We were told by the big guys that barley variety doesn't really matter—and you're not going to tell a wine grower that variety has no impact on flavor of the wine—that's not true at all," Klann says. "We're only now starting to see that variety has a tremendous impact on flavor. People are kind of coming around to it, but it's still kind of the last link in that whole local beer food chain."
Meanwhile, what's up with yeast?
Pound for pound, its contribution is microscopic. Still, yeast is a key flavor factor in your beer.
Oregon state legislators declared Saccharomyces cerevisiae the Oregon state microbe in 2013. Also known as brewer's yeast, the tiny fungus has been instrumental in brewing and baking since ancient times.
Home brewers and startups typically buy the yeast strain that corresponds to the type of beer they want to brew. Once established, breweries typically regenerate their own yeast.