Madras farm banks on craft brewing with malt: Malted barley adds distinctive flavor

MADRAS — In the brewing world, hops tend to overshadow their teammate malt in the flavor category. Brad Klann and his son Seth Klann are working to change that by growing and malting a particular variety of barley that imparts distinct flavor characteristics and then selling it to craft brewers and distillers. They are betting the farm on the success of Mecca Grade Estate Malt.

The Klanns’ operation, based on 1,000 acres in Jefferson County, is in its infancy. At its heart is a prototype malter that, so far, has proved the concept by providing a relatively small amount of malt to brewers in Oregon and California who have turned out several distinctive brews.

The single malt the Klanns produce is a departure, they say, from the blended, flavor-neutral malts most craft brewers start with. The variety of barley they’re growing, called Full Pint, was developed by Oregon State University. It carries a “really sweet, almost nutty graham cracker” taste, Seth Klann said.

He and his father said they see an opportunity to steal some of the spotlight from hops.

“Nobody’s doing identity-preserved, single-variety malts like we are,” said Seth Klann. “This is the flavor that comes from our farm. It’s not a mix, and because we’re growing these varieties that are really complex, we end up with a really complex malt.”

A handful of craft brewers used their malt to produce some tasty brews that proved the Klanns’ concept, they said. Mazama Brewing, of Corvallis, this year used Mecca Grade malt in their Oregon SMASH (for Single Malt and Single Hop). Brewer Veronica Vega, of Deschutes Brewery, collaborated with the Klanns on Central Oregon Saison, a beer made of locally sourced ingredients, including Mecca Grade malt, Madras coriander and Central Oregon carrot honey.

“We got really good feedback from the beer,” Vega said Monday. “The local and regional ingredients, that’s a trend that the consumer has supported and is also a reason why (Mecca Grade) will be a success.”

Where the wind blows across a dusty patch of Jefferson County on Seth Klann’s farm, the two men have staked out a site for a 25,000-square-foot, full-scale malting facility. It lies in the shadow of four brand-new grain silos, each capable of storing more than 900,000 pounds of grain, the reserve the Klanns anticipate they’ll need to meet demand. In a small building nearby rests the prototype they designed themselves with the help of engineers from a Willamette Valley firm they declined to name. Wary of competitors, they’re reluctant to share details.

“It’s the Area 51 of malting,” Seth Klann said.

Essentially, they’ve combined the three stages of malting barley — soaking the barley kernels, turning them for even germination and, finally, toasting them to produce malt — into one machine. The Klanns spent the last four years developing the process.

The prototype, which produces 700 pounds of malted barley each week, worked well enough to persuade the two to build a production facility capable of 20,000 pounds per week. They expect to have two larger malters in service by February, Brad Klann said. Clients are already lining up, he said.

“We have people that are waiting for it,” Brad Klann said. “We have a big chunk (of production from) the big facility already committed now. I think there’s a lot of people just waiting to see if we’ll deliver on this. What we’re doing, no one else is doing.”

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Q: What was the genesis of this, to take the risk?

A: Seth Klann: Mainly me bugging Dad about it.

A: Brad Klann: Our family’s been farming here for over 100 years. We wanted to keep the family farm going, to (help) the grandchildren and great-grandchildren keep the farm going.

Q: Where do you expect the business to be in three to five years?

A: Brad Klann: Our building (will be) big enough to expand our machines. … We’ll expand as fast as we have to, and as long as we have sales and everything is going good, we’ll expand.

A: Seth Klann: We kind of tied malt production to the growth of our farm, too, and I think that’s pretty attractive. No one is doing estate malting.