At Skagit Valley Malting, Wayne Carpenter presides over a rapidly increasing assortment of squat metal silos that store the grain he buys from local farmers. Carpenter started Skagit Valley Malting to take advantage of the grain supply and to specialize in low-protein malt for craft brewers, producing custom malt on demand. His customers have varying requirements for their malts, from performance characteristics (temperature, humidity) to quantity (as much as eight tons), which SVM is able to replicate from one order to the next. The result: new flavors for brewers, distillers and bakers.
Malt is the backbone of beer, its heart and soul, really. By this definition, virtually no beer in Washington is truly local. Malted grain typically arrives at Washington’s breweries and distilleries in 50-pound bags from the Midwest and Canada. Malt is created when grain — such as barley, wheat, rye, oats, millet, sorghum, corn and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye) — is allowed to sprout so the germinating seeds begin to release their sugar. It is then dried — “roasted,” in industry parlance — to arrest the process.
Specialty brewers overwhelmingly favor barley because it can be roasted to produce a wide range of colors and flavors. Of the 30,000 varieties of grain on the planet, only about a dozen are used for the industrial brewing of commercial beer, let alone for distilling. It’s a bit like wine; there are thousands of varieties of grapes, but only a dozen or so readily available on the shelf.
“The entire industry is monolithic,” says Carpenter, who for his efforts was named a 2016 James Beard Awards semifinalist in the category of Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional. He’d like to change that dynamic because it seems a shame to let that natural advantage go to waste selling Skagit grain into the commodities market. “Why should the Chicago Mercantile Exchange set the price for our crops?” he muses.
A former software executive with a knack for tinkering, Carpenter works in a windowless building surrounded by grain silos on a 10-acre section of the Bayview Business Park. A skunk works, they would have called it in Grandpa’s day, where he and his staff of engineers have built a phalanx of secret machines worth about a million dollars each to customize the malting process for thousands of grain varieties, unlocking a world of choice and flavor for its customers.
“With our precise, adjustable malt equipment, we are ushering in a new, modernized era of malt,” Carpenter declares. “Our equipment can customize every phase of the malting process to develop the best characteristics of the grain. That means we can adapt the process to any kind of grain varietal.”
To control the experiment at every point in the malting process, sensors monitor for size, moisture content, color and texture of each type of grain. International patents are still pending, so Carpenter allows no public access or photographs.
A 50-pound bag of industrial malt will produce two 50-gallon kegs of beer, enough for 250 pints at the pub. The cost of a bag from an industrial supplier is roughly $18. The good stuff from Skagit Valley Malting goes for $50. Craft beer, to name just one use, requires up to 4 ounces of malt per glass. If you do the math, you can see the obvious benefit to Carpenter’s business — and to Skagit Valley farmers.
The Port of Skagit County, which operates Bayview Business Park, believes Carpenter has the answer to a big agricultural concern: falling prices for crops that have long been considered commodities. By turning the barley crop into a specialty product for discerning brewers and distillers, value will be added and prices will rise.