By Chris Heagney
Whether it’s from brewing up a batch at home or walking through one of more than 200 breweries in North Carolina, most people in our region have abundant exposure to craft beer. What might be less familiar is the story behind one of beer’s essential ingredients: malted barley. Beer drinkers touring a brewhouse have certainly seen sacks of malt slumped against tanks and mash tuns, but many of us have never considered where the grain comes from and what makes it special to brewing. Farmers do not simply harvest barley, pack it up and send it to breweries. The grain must go through a specific process called malting before a brewery can use it effectively.
Malting is a four-step process that involves steeping, germinating, drying/kilning and cleaning the barley. The goal of malting is to make the grain’s resources more available during the brewing process. I spoke with Brent Manning of Riverbend Malt House, a craft malting facility in Asheville, to learn about the economic and environmental impacts of producing and selling malt regionally.
Upon its opening in 2010, Riverbend gained immediate interest from the Asheville beer community. When the brewing industry exploded in South Slope, demand for malt increased. “We received tremendous support from Wicked Weed, Burial Beer, Twin Leaf, Hi-Wire and others,” Manning says. Before Riverbend opened, most breweries purchased malt from national or global distributors like Country Malt Group, which has a warehouse in the Asheville area. “CMG has a high-volume, globally sourced, warehouse stock business model,” Manning says. “This is quite different from Riverbend’s approach. We source exclusively from local farmers and we avoid warehousing to ensure freshness and to minimize the amount of product transportation.”
A major focus of Riverbend’s business model is minimizing the brewing industry’s environmental footprint. By working exclusively with farms in NC and neighboring states, it has significantly reduced the distance grain travels from producer to consumer. While grain typically travels an average of 3,000 miles on its way to a brewery, grain purchased from Riverbend travels an average of just 300 miles.
Recent success has allowed Riverbend to expand into a new space, making it one of the country’s largest craft malting facilities. “Our new facility is a dream come true for us,” says Manning. “We finally have the ability to make a broad range of high-quality, locally sourced craft malts in volume. And it’s right here in Asheville, the heart of craft beer.”
To learn more about the malting process and Riverbend Malt House, visit riverbendmalthouse.com. Chris Heagney is the owner of Daidala Ciders, a nomadic cider company based in Asheville.