Malting class, conference at MSU highlights a growing industry

Montana State University
Farm Forum

BOZEMAN, Mont. — Illustrating the widespread growth of an industry that is gaining a foothold in Montana, roughly 170 people convened at Montana State University to improve their knowledge of malting, the process of preparing barley for making beer.

The 2019 Craft Malt Conference on Feb. 2-3 capped a smaller, weeklong class in which participants learned about each step of the malting process, from selecting the most suitable barley to testing the quality of the finished product.

Malting — which involves soaking and partially germinating grain, then drying it to preserve the resulting sugars and enzymes — can mean the difference between a Pilsner and a rich, caramel-flavored Scotch ale. More subtle variations in the process can produce unique flavors in craft beer.

“Craft malting is (in a similar situation) as craft brewing was a decade ago,” when microbreweries were on the rise, said Hannah Turner, one of the malting class’s three instructors and a research associate in MSU’s College of Agriculture.

“There’s lots of excitement,” Turner said. “Brewers are interested in sourcing their ingredients locally, so they’re looking into crafted malt,” which is done in smaller batches with greater attention to the source of grain, she said. The conference featured a tasting of nine beers produced by Montana brewers using craft malt from around the country.

Both the conference and the class, which drew attendees from as far away as Australia and Italy, were organized by the North American Craft Maltsters Guild. A major draw for holding the event in Bozeman was MSU’s Malt Quality Lab, which is one of only two such labs in the country that offer their services to independent craft maltsters, according to Jen Blair, executive director of the maltster’s guild, which is based in North Carolina. Attendees toured the lab as part of the activities.

“This is the first chance that many people have to actually see a malt quality lab,” said Blair, adding that MSU’s lab is “indispensable” for craft maltsters seeking to improve their product. MSU’s is the only lab of its kind in the Northern Great Plains region that can provide complete quality analysis of barley malt.

Turner, who is director of the lab, said that growing interest in craft malt is keeping her busy. “We’re seeing more and more people from around the region requesting our services,” she said. Currently there are two craft malting facilities operating in Montana. Another, larger facility is under construction in Butte.

Decades ago, most of Montana’s barley was grown for animal feed, but now the majority is sold for malting, fetching about double the price, according to Jamie Sherman, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in MSU’s agriculture college. Most is processed by large facilities like Malteurop’s plant in Great Falls.

Sherman directs MSU’s Barley Breeding Program, which develops barley varieties tailored for malting. Early in the breeding process, her team makes use of the malt lab to select the best breeding lines. “It has really helped our ability to make better malt barley,” she said.

The upshot, she said, is that Montana’s barley growers and maltsters are well-positioned to participate in the trend that was on display at last week’s events at MSU. The turnout at the conference “goes to show how much demand there is for this.”

According to Blair, membership in the guild has grown from eight craft maltsters when the organization was founded in 2013 to 67 today, up from 55 last year.