Growing Canadian craft beer sector thirsty for local malt

WINNIPEG — Craft breweries are a growing sub-sector of the Canadian beer industry, but the increased variety of local drink options are not necessarily 100 percent home-grown because a lack of domestically produced specialty malts force brewers to look far afield to meet their needs.

“We get our base malt locally, but we don’t have any maltsters in the province making the specialty malt we need,” Colin Enquist, sales and marketing manager with PEG Beer Co. in Winnipeg, said in an email.

The specialty malt being imported from the United Kingdom, Germany and other countries “comes down to the availability and some suppliers just having a better product,” he added.

Malt is created through a three-step process that sees grain soaked, germinated and then kilned, which converts the starches in the grain into sugars. Variations in that process, from the grain used to how long the end product is kilned or roasted, can impact the flavour of the resulting beer.

“We’ve actually had a couple people come into the pub and ask if they opened a specialty malt shop if we’d be interested in buying more locally grown malt,” said Enquist.

“‘We absolutely would buy all local if we could and it was to the quality we need.”

In some cases, the European malt finding its way into Canadian beer could have been created using Canadian barley to begin with, said Lawrence Warwaruk of Farmery Estate Brewery in Neepawa, Man.

His company creates beer using grain grown on its own farm, but that barley is still malted offsite through an agreement with Malteurop in Winnipeg.

“There is definitely a market for specialty malts,” said Warwaruk.

The large malting companies “do a fantastic job of what they do,” he added, but specialty malts have a higher value and could find a home both domestically and even abroad.

“You need to create a demand for locally sourced barley, malted locally, and sold locally,” said Warwaruk.

His company has looked into malting its own grain as well.

The Canadian Malt Barley Technical Centre in Winnipeg runs training programs a few times a year for aspiring maltsters and those already in the industry.

Peter Watts, managing director of the centre, said the craft malting sector is small in North America, accounting for less than one percent of the total malt production. He estimated that of the 40 to 50 craft maltsters in North America, only about half a dozen were in Canada. However, he said there was plenty of interest from the craft industry.

“With the growth and expansion in the craft brewing industry in the last 10 years, it has created demand for craft maltsters,” said Watts.

Malting grain is rather basic from a theoretical perspective, but in practice “it’s a pretty big investment up front,” said Watts.

Matt Hamill of Red Shed Malting in Red Deer went through the CMBTC course and is now operating a small-scale maltster. The company’s genesis came from a conversation between Hamill’s father, a farmer, and his brother, who was brewing his own beer.

“Why are we getting malt from Germany, when we grow pretty amazing malt quality barley right here on the farm?” was the question asked, which, after a number of steps along the way, eventually led to a malt house.

“We certainly felt, and still do feel, that there is a need and a place for craft maltsters,” said Hamill.

“We can play around with different barley varieties and production methods.”

The smaller scale also allows them to work closely with craft brewers “to make sure we’re giving them exactly what they’re looking for.”

Hamill said craft brewing also uses more barley to make the same amount of beer. Craft beer may need three to seven times more barley compared to mass produced beers because brewers are not supplementing with corn, sugar and other adjuncts.

“The big maltsters make a great base malt, but we feel there is an opportunity to do some unique things and put our own twist on it,” said Hamill.

“Seeing your product make it into beer that you can get at the local liquor store is a pretty amazing thing.”

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