SKOWHEGAN — Joel Alex graduated from Colby College as an environmental studies major and has been working as a mapmaking consultant for the past five years.

Alex, who lives in Farmington, said the local food scene, which includes three farmers markets and community-supported agriculture, piqued his interest in sustainable food systems. He took up homebrewing.

“One day I was like why doesn’t anyone make a locally sourced Maine beer? And that’s when I realized you couldn’t do that,” said Alex.

In April, Alex left his job to research malting and brewing full time with the aspiration of starting a malt house in the Somerset Grange hall. Although there are many beers brewed in Maine, one of the main ingredients used in making those beers — malt — is not produced in Maine.

Alex, who describes himself as someone who cares about where food comes from, has been working with the Maine Grain Alliance and was recently given a scholarship to attend the annual Kneading Conference in Skowhegan.

The two-day conference featured regional and national experts on grain growing, milling, bread baking and wood-fired and hand-made ovens.

“It was a really good way for me to connect with other people in grain systems. Even people that aren’t necessarily interested in malting, for example bakers or millers, are working with the same ingredient, just in a different way,” said Alex.

For the last eight months, Alex has been working on establishing what would be Maine’s first craft malt house.

Malt, which is made from processed grains such as barley, is used to make beer and whiskey as well as food products such as malt vinegar and malted milk. According to the Institute of Brewing & Distilling in London, there are just 28 craft maltsters in North America.

Grain economy revival

Amber Lambke, executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance and the founder and co-owner of the Somerset Grist Mill downtown, said that the addition of a malt house in the Somerset Grange would benefit the revival of the local grain economy that is underway.

The grist mill, which opened in the former Somerset County Jail in 2008, processes and mills flour and oats that they buy from Maine farmers and distribute throughout the northeast. It has contracts with food stores, bakeries and farmer’s markets including the New York City Greenmarkets, a network of 54 farmers’ markets based in Queens, N.Y.

Lambke said that there are a number of farmers in Maine that grow barley, but that most of it is shipped to Canada for malting.

“It’s grown in Maine but it’s not staying in Maine. I think if Joel can address that issue there is a lot of business to be had,” said Lambke.

In 2012, Maine ranked sixth in the U.S. for the number of microbreweries per capita, with a total of 37, according to the Brewer’s Association, an organization seeking to protect and promote independent brewers in the U.S.

The largest brewery in Maine, Shipyard Brewing Company, produced 158,441 barrels of ale in 2012, according to the company’s website.

Lambke said that Skowhegan is just one example of a national trend in revitalizing local grain economies. Part of that process is the emergence of what she calls micro malt houses, such as Valley Malt in Hadley, Mass., and Riverbend Malt House in Asheville, N.C.

“Farmers, millers and bakers are all part of developing an economic cluster of businesses that can support an industry. Malting definitely fits into that picture too,” said Lambke.

There are only a handful of malt houses in the United States. Most malt is processed at large plants in Canada and Europe before it comes back to the United States for use by brewers, said Lambke.

And while there is opportunity for more malt houses in the United States, getting started is not easy.

Andrea Stanley, co-owner and maltster of Valley Malt, said that she and her husband, Christian Stanley, encountered a number of challenges to starting their business, including investing in thousands of dollars of equipment needed for malting. Equipment is hard to come by because there are so few micro-malting facilities in the United States and even fewer equipment manufacturers, Stanley explained at the Kneading Conference.

The malting process takes about eight days during which dried seeds are steeped in water, germinate and roasted in a carefully monitored temperature-controlled environment. Barley is the most commonly used grain but wheat, rye, rice or oats may also be used. The malting process breaks down the protein matrix in the seed coat of the grains, exposing the sweetness and flavor of the starch.

Historically grains were steeped in concrete or stone, but today they are often steeped in cast iron vats for two or three days while they absorb water and start to sprout.

It is then “couched” in little piles to preserve heat while the germination process begins. The piles are eventually spread out evenly over the floor of the malt house as air flow is required to bring oxygen to the millions of kernels of grain. Careful attention must be paid to keeping the temperature around 65 degrees for uniform, slow growth of the seeds. They germinate for three to five days, just long enough for shoots to come out but before the young plant consumes all of the sugars in the seed.

At that point the grains are transferred to a kiln for drying. The moisture level is reduced to about three percent, preserving enzymes produced during germination that will give the malt its color and the toasty flavor it is associated with.

From there the grain may need additional processing to remove tannin-containing rootlets that would cause bitterness and astringency in the malt and eventually the beer it is used to create. The other typical ingredients in beer are water, hops and yeast.

Malting started out as an experiment for the Stanleys.

“I liken it to the way craft brewing was viewed 30 years ago. There were people interested in doing it but the equipment wasn’t available,” said Stanley. “People were just figuring it out.”

She said that her husband, a mechanical engineer, built their first malting system.

Alex said he is researching building his own equipment. He did not have an estimate of the cost but said he has received a grant from the Maine Institute of Technology and is applying for others.

He said he would like to open his malt house by the end of 2014.

Somerset Grange

Stephen Dionne, who recently bought the Somerset Grange with Lambke, said renovations on the building, which dates to 1894 and is on Pleasant Street a short walk from the grist mill, are well underway. He said he plans to restore the hall to its original exterior, with deep tan siding and white trim.

Dionne said he has spoken with Alex about putting a malt house in the bottom floor of the grange, an idea he thinks is a good one but that will also require additional work to the building’s electrical work and plumbing.

“I would love to see Joel in there. I think a malt house would couple nicely with the grist mill and it would be good to have another grain-based business downtown,” said Dionne.

Alex, who is teaching summer school in Massachusetts while working on his idea, said he sees the malt house as more than just a way to build the local grain economy.

“I’m someone who loves rural Maine and loves the rural community. The drive behind this is to find a method of rural economic development that also maintains rural character. I think food systems, and a malt house, can do that,” he said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
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