Food & dining

Small malting operation in Hadley helps local beers stand out

Christian and Andrea Stanley own Valley Malt, the largest independently owned malt house in New England.
Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe
Christian and Andrea Stanley own Valley Malt, the largest independently owned malt house in New England.

HADLEY — “Without malt,” says Andrea Stanley, co-owner of Valley Malt, “you don’t have beer.” Stanley stands in a field behind her malting business here, gesturing to a row of barley that will be some of the grain transformed by Stanley and her husband, Christian, into the essential key to creating beer.

In their small malting operation fashioned from an expanded garage, the maltsters are giving craft brewers and distillers in New England the opportunity to use local grain and locally produced malt to make their products distinctive. Over the winter, Valley Malt, which opened in 2010 and is the largest independently owned malt house in New England, doubled in size as the push for growing, buying, and producing locally has extended even to beer and spirits. Some of its customers are Exhibit A Brewery, Peaks Organic, Jacks Abby, Trillium, and Mad River Distilling. As customer Ben Roesch of Wormtown Brewery in Worcester says, the local malted grain from local grain varieties “brings something unique” to his customers.

In fact, looking for local is the reason that Valley Malt was created. In the mid 2000s, Andrea, a social worker, and Christian, a mechanical engineer, first explored making craft beer, brewing in their basement. But the Stanleys soon discovered that although the market for locally made craft beer was expanding rapidly, malt was not so local. Andrea found out that “the closest place was Wisconsin. Craft brewers were marketing as local, but the malt was not local.”

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The Stanleys had a eureka moment — instead of making beer, they would use grain from New England and New York State to make malt to sell to brewers and craft liquor distillers who would then be able to truly market their beer and other spirits as local.

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Now Andrea shows off her malting house and its equipment — steeping tanks, dryers, silos, and many, many grain conveyors, tubes, roasters, and weighing and testing equipment. She explains that malted grain — usually barley, but also wheat, rye, and other grains — looks like regular raw grain, but “it’s what happens inside that makes the difference. The whole point of the malting process is to break down the starches and create enzymes.” This process of steeping grain in water initiates germination, or sprouting. The sprouted seed is then dried quickly, stopping the process. Brewers or distillers will then use dried grain, now called malt, and through the brewing process extract sugars so that yeast can ferment and create alcohol.

The malted grain tastes slightly sweet, “like Grape Nuts,” she says, offering a few kernels to try. There are other steps along the way such as roasting the malted grain for different types of darker beer. But the process is streamlined only slightly from the way that grain was malted over the centuries. The Stanleys did a fellowship in England several years ago in which they learned floor malting, the traditional way, which involves spreading grain out onto a wood floor, flooding it with water, raking it by hand, and then draining it and drying it. The romance of that way is intriguing, Andrea admits, “but it’s not as efficient.” Even so, malting is hard, physical work. Her husband, the mechanical engineer, “can build anything,” she says, as she pointed out grain conveying machinery he’s repairing. And she has discovered over time that she loves the physical work of lifting 50-pound bags of grain, climbing up and down narrow ladders to test the moisture levels of grain, and a myriad of other chores.

Beer is probably the oldest alcohol beverage, older than wine and possibly older than bread making. Recipes for it are detailed on ancient Babylonian clay tablets; it was used in medieval Europe to pay taxes, and produced commercially as early as 1200 AD. By the late 20th century, microbreweries and craft breweries started popping up across the country, including by now dozens in Massachusetts and elsewhere in New England. Small malting houses have also started up in other New England states.

Although the big commercial breweries produce billions of cases of beer a year, craft brewers have found customers by differentiating their brews by varieties of grain and often by using as many local ingredients as possible. Though Valley Malt’s product sells at a premium compared to commodity malt, brewer customers think the quality and localness are worth the price. As Nicole Currier at Throwback Brewery in North Hampton, N.H., says: “One of our best-selling beers is our Love Me Long Time pilsner, which is 100 percent Valley Malt pilsen malt. What makes that beer truly shine is the malt. It’s clean and crisp, with notes of straw. Whenever I take a sip, I am reminded just how much beer is an agricultural product. “

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The Stanleys started their malting business with their own savings. Although the business has grown substantially, adding several employees, grain suppliers, and customers and now malting about 700,000 pounds of grain a year, the couple still are very hands-on, making sure the grain is tested at each stage of malting to assure the proper moisture and germination, sending grain for quality control to outside testing services, and providing brewers with needed analytics. Andrea also works to find the farmers who can grow the varieties of grain to malt that craft brewers are looking for. She stops to take a call from a farmer in upstate New York, who reports that a hailstorm the previous evening wiped out his crop. She smiles ruefully, saying that she’ll have to look for another supply of the 120,000 pounds of wheat that was ruined. There’s “only so much you can do,” she says, adding that this summer’s storms have been hard for area farmers.

For Valley Malt customer Roesch of Wormtown Brewing, that loyalty to the local farming movement is part of its appeal for Wormtown, which is sold all over Massachusetts and in Rhode Island. “We look to use as much local grain and ingredients as possible,” he says, adding that Valley Malt’s product does not sit in bins a long time and reduces the carbon footprint because it is not trucked across the country. Matthew Steinberg, an owner of Exhibit A, produced in Framingham, says the quality is what attracts his young company, which began producing in 2016 and sells to 80 restaurants and package stores in the state and Vermont. “Their quality is so unbelievably high,” making the cost worth it.

As the Stanleys prepared to take their first big vacation this summer with their three children, Andrea worries about competition from big breweries and other companies such as Budweiser and Sunoco beginning to buy craft breweries and setting up malt houses. But neither she nor her husband has been driven by making money, she says, and both are satisfied with their progress. Valley Malt, she says, “is big enough to make an impact,” and can help support the farmers and brewers they work with.

For the Stanleys and Valley Malt, that has always been the goal.

Alison Arnett can be reached at arnett.alison@gmail.com.