Aspiring Growers, Maltsters, Brewers Gather in Mass.

2/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Amy Halloran New York Correspondent

A Farmer Brewer Conference in Amherst, Mass., drew 30 people from as far away as San Francisco and New Brunswick, Canada, to learn about different aspects of grain farming, malting and the craft beer and spirit industry.

Micro-malting company Valley Malt, of Hadley, Mass., hosted the event Jan. 19-20 at Hampshire College.

The growing popularity of the industry has created an interest in malting — the process of germinating and drying cereal grains for use in brewing — and New York's new Farm Brewery Law, which went into effect Jan. 14, has helped fuel that curiosity. On a regular basis, Valley Malt receives calls and emails from people looking for information on the process.

Those requests, plus the Farm Brewery law, inspired the conference, said organizers Andrea and Christian Stanley.

The Stanleys started their malting operation in 2010 to help serve the need for distinctive small batch malts. They were also interested in getting barley and other grains back in the ground in their area.

"Andrea and Christian are kind of pioneers of the micro-malting and local beer movement," said fourth-generation Long Island farmer John Condzella. "It was one of the best conferences I've ever been to. The diverse groups offered a great amount of value to everyone there."

The two-day conference drew a mix of people, from farmers interested in growing grain for malting, to home brewers thinking of starting nano-breweries, to established breweries and distilleries investigating malting.

One such distillery was Corsair in Tennessee; the day after the conference, their Triple Smoke whiskey won the Artisan Whiskey of the Year Award from Whiskey Advocate magazine.

Condzella, a vegetable grower, came because he's interested in serving the brewers in his area.

Condzella just launched a campaign on the online fundraising site Kickstarter to raise funds to purchase a small European combine to harvest his one-acre hopyard. Long before the Farm Brewery Law came online, Condzella began to diversify his vegetable and strawberry operations in the direction of brewing. His hopyard is three years old, and he'll be planting another acre of hops this year. He is working on a prototype for his own very small-scale malting machine, and said the conference really helped with that aspect of the project.

"It's very hard to come by small-scale malting info," said Condzella. "For a grain farmer or hop grower, it's important to know your customers, and the brewers offered a lot of experience."

Andrea Stanley organized the event as a forum for sharing information on malting and craft brewing and spirit production, and to paint a portrait of the supply and demand side of hops and grains. The conference featured experts in the various specialties that contribute to beer making and distilling. Speakers explained matters from angles both practical and scientific.

Hampshire College professor Chris Jarvis covered the science of brewing, and Bruno Vashon, master maltster of Malterie Frontenac in Quebec, covered malting. Cornell Hops Specialist Steve Miller gave a presentation on hops. Several brewers discussed using local hops, grains and other ingredients, like pumpkins, peppers and fruits in their beers. Organic grain farmer Thor Oechsner gave participants an overview of the growing side of the equation, discussing how to grow food-quality grains.

The weekend included an intensive tour of the malthouse, and the meals featured local beers.

Farmer Garry Sperrick grows apples and grapes in Victor, N.Y., and is building a farm brewery, Abandon Brewing Co., which he hopes will be open by June.

"We're building a brewery but the malting will be part of it," said Sperrick. "We have local people with crops in the ground for us, and we've got to figure out what to do with it."

Located on the wine trail, the brewery will be a 15- to 20-barrel system, run by a brewer with experience from Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, N.Y., and elsewhere. Sperrick went to the conference to understand malting. Along with that understanding, he gained a great respect for the people who are actually malting.

"We have to go one step at a time," he said. "And our eyes are wider open. We're going to have a few ton of grains coming at us this year, and I may have to outsource the malting."

Adam Seitz came to the conference from Pennsylvania. A recent graduate of Penn State, Seitz works as a certification specialist for Pennsylvania Certified Organic.

"I attended as an aspiring maltster and owner of Penns Mault, a malting operation I've been working to start up in central Pennsylvania," Seitz said. "I am hoping to craft my first batch of commercial malt for state breweries within a year or so."

The weekend, he said, was an incredible opportunity to get a vivid picture from farmers and brewers of what it takes to grow a truly local beer. He especially valued the information and experience that the maltsters shared, which is useful as he evaluates his business plans, from system design and function, to working with local farmers and brewers.

"It will be several seasons before I'm a full-time maltster," Seitz said, "but this event definitely helped me along the path."

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