Family finds success growing barley for brewers

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 10, 2011

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — A small farm in western Rowan County has found a new way to make money and promote local agriculture.
Western Rowan County farmers Alan “Buddy” Hoffner and son, Chris, are growing barley for Asheville-based startup Riverbend Malt House.
There, it will be processed into malt, sold to local brewers and made into beer.
Buddy won’t get to sample the end product, though. He doesn’t drink.
“It’s ironic that somebody wants me to grow barley for malt,” Buddy said. “But I don’t mind.”
He and Chris said the farm could use a steady flow of income from a partnership like this.
“We’re open-minded,” Chris said. “In this economy, you’ve got to find a way to do things differently.”
Riverbend contacted them last summer asking if they could buy their organic barley. The farm, located at the end of Kerr Mill Road, already was growing just the variety the malt house needed.
Owners Brent Manning and Brian Simpson said they want to help local breweries make real North Carolina beer.
“Basically, our goal as a business is to redefine local beer,” Manning said. “Everyone says they make North Carolina beer, but their ingredients come from thousands of miles away.”
He said it’s better for the local economy to keep money circulating nearby. It’s also better for the environment to use less fossil fuel, he said, by not transporting products over long distances.
The Hoffners said they support the local food movement and are glad to be part of Riverbend’s efforts.
Simpson said the malt house wants to create a signature North Carolina flavor that can be tasted in beer, like the distinctive flavors in wine from different regions.
In addition to beer, malt is used as an ingredient in whiskey, malt vinegar and malted milk balls.
The first step in the week-long malting process is steeping the barley kernels in water, causing them to sprout and activating enzymes.
Next, the barley is germinated to break down starches and proteins. Riverbend uses a technique called floor malting, which involves spreading the the kernels on a clean concrete floor and raking them so they don’t grow together.
Finally, the kernels are dried and placed in a kiln, which heats the barley at certain temperature and moisture levels to achieve the ideal malt.
According to Simpson, organic barley makes a better-quality malt.
Conventional farmers add nutrients to the soil to make the grain protein-rich, he said, but malting barley is best with a lower protein content.
“The way we do malting creates more body in the beer,” Simpson said. “It’s a more malty beer than traditional grains make.”
The Hoffners’ farm is certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, meaning it uses no pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetically modified crops.
They switched to organic farming several years ago, when the dairy business was losing money as competition with larger farms grew.
“We had three choices,” Buddy said. “We could get big, specialize in a niche market kind of thing or quit. We took the organic route, and we feel like it’s the right thing to do.”
It’s a more expensive and difficult way to farm, Buddy said, but people are willing to pay a premium for organic products.
That includes the people at Riverbend.
Manning said he and Simpson are working to contract with other farmers as the business grows. They hope to create a niche market that will benefit both the malt house and struggling small farmers.
“It helps the farmer sleep at night because he knows he’s got a dedicated market for his crop,” Manning said.
The business is already expanding beyond barley for its malt.
The Hoffner farm will be one of two growing wheat for Riverbend, and another North Carolina farm will provide rye.
Riverbend has made only a couple batches of its malt so far, Manning said, but interest is growing rapidly.
“We’re working with brewers across the state,” he said. “There’s tremendous support for the local food movement in North Carolina, and this dovetails into it beautifully.”
The Weeping Radish farm brewery, located in Grandy in northeast North Carolina, is already set to achieve Riverbend’s goal of creating a truly local beer.
Owner Uli Bennewitz is using its malt to make a seasonal Christmas beer with all North Carolina ingredients, including hops from another farmer in the state.
“This will be the first beer made with locally-grown malt and locally-grown hops at the same time,” Bennewitz said. “It’s so exciting.”
Malt isn’t the only product linking the eastern North Carolina brewery to the Hoffners’ Rowan County farm.
“We also have a butchery, and for most of the hot dogs we make in-house, the meat comes from their farm,” Bennewitz said. “That was not planned.”
That’s the kind of local business that Riverbend hopes to cultivate, and that can help farmers like the Hoffners to thrive.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.