The Inside Dirt

Why American Craft Distillers Are Obsessing About Grain

Distillers across the country are now experimenting with new and heritage styles of rye, barley, and wheat.

“We’re making American single malt, not Scotch in America,” said Matt Hofmann, the master distiller at Seattle’s Westland Distillery. “For instance, almost all Scotch is distilled from one barley varietal, done as pale malt, either peated or unpeated.”

He paused, then spread his hands to emphasize the question: “Why would you not use all the variety?”

His question, after all, is a complex one, but the quest for variety is at the heart of the American craft whiskey distilling movement. These upstart spirits producers are all about difference: different flavors, different aromas, different stories, different ways of doing business.

Westland is supporting Washington farmers who are growing some very different barley varietals. On a recent visit to the distillery, where I was a guest of the brand, Hofmann talked about grain, sampled me on some unaged spirit and then revealed the show-stopper: Purple Obsidian barley, an old Egyptian strain that is a dark, almost mysterious purple in color. I’d never seen anything like it. Why fiddle about with different types of barrels when you could get right at the literal DNA of whiskey?

To better explain what they’re doing, Hofmann and I drove up to the Skagit Valley, about 90 minutes north of Seattle. The rich soil here makes this one of the most productive farming areas in the country. The big money crops in this little Eden are mostly seeds—grown for other farmers and gardeners—and flowers, like tulips.

John Roozen is a tulip farmer here, and he explained to me why he also worked with Westland to grow barley. “Oxidation,” he said. “It’s the breakdown of all living things. Farming [tulips] breaks down the soil, so you have to replenish it.” Roozen only grows tulips one year out of five; the other four years he grows other crops—peas, hay and barley among them—both to enrich the soil through plowing them in as “green manure” and to break disease cycles that could potentially ruin his tulip crops.

But this interest in distilling a wider variety of grains isn’t just limited to the Pacific Northwest. On the other side of the country, Andrea Stanley works with farmers in western Massachusetts to grow interesting strains of rye and barley. She and her husband Christian founded Valley Malt, a small facility for making specialty malts from local grain. (Malting involves wetting, sprouting, and then kilning grain to make it easier to distill.)

The Stanleys are able to attract farmers to work with Valley Malt because of the benefits to the soil as well as the increasing value of barley and rye.

Traditionally, these so-called cover crop grains were planted merely to return fertility to the soil and protect it from erosion. Since they sold for so little they weren’t worth harvesting on small farms. What’s made a big difference for small farms across the country, is that new—and heritage—strains of barley, rye, wheat, and other grains are now in demand by craft distillers, brewers, and bakers. While it’s not big money, it’s enough that farmers are paying attention.

This development is a result of the farm distilling licenses that many small brands have, which require them to use local ingredients. It’s also a testament to a number of plant breeding programs. Some are supported by the nation’s biggest brewers—Coors and Anheuser-Busch have had barley breeding programs for decades—and some are the work of agricultural colleges.

One of those, Washington State University, has a research station in the Skagit Valley. Along with other grains, there are experimental plots of barley, each about 6-by-10 feet. The barley varies in height, color (there are red, black, and purple heads along with the standard light brown), and density. Researchers are looking for winners that can be propagated and sold, but the perfect combination is not common. Most breeds don’t have the right mix of yield, disease resistance, harvest friendly growth, or malting suitability to move beyond the research stage.

Yet each one has some quality or combination of qualities that make it potentially interesting. That’s what researcher Steve Jones is looking for. His mission is to increase the amount of flavor and nutrition in grain, which will in turn increase the amount of flavor and nutrition in flour and food and eventually in whiskey and beer.

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“Commodity wheat is all designed for white flour,” he said. “There’s purple wheat, and it may taste great, but the system has no place for it. The skill of the miller is based on how much minerals and fiber he can take out of the flour.” Jones’ work has already attracted the interest of a host of corporate partners, including King Arthur Flour, Clif Bar, Chipotle, Whole Foods, La Brea Bakery, and Westland Distillery.

This interest in alternative strains is what keeps Andrea Stanley excited about the small-scale malting. “Seventy-five percent of the barley being grown in North America is Metcalf and Copeland,” she said. “That sucks for diversity. A craft malthouse like us, we’re malting five to six varieties of barley, five varieties of wheat, three of rye. Multiply that by a hundred malthouses, and we’ve blown up the diversity of grains in North America. It’s awesome!”

It’s also a return to an earlier time. Some of these new grains are actually so-called heritage strains, which were grown as far back as 200 years ago. They fell out of favor for one reason or another. For instance, many rye strains have been lost in North America largely because people stopped drinking rye whiskey, but another distillery-university research cooperative may be bringing at least one lost rye variety back.

John Urbanchuk is the head of the Agribusiness department at Delaware Valley University in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Three years ago, he took a tour of a local distillery, Mountain Laurel Spirits in Bristol, Pennsylvania, and got to talking with founder and distiller Herman Mihalich about grain.

Mihalich wanted Urbanchuk to help him grow Rosen rye, a strain that was widely available in the U.S. about 100 years ago. “I found it in a USDA seed repository,” Urbanchuk recalled. “They sent us five grams of seed, about half of what you get in one of those seed packets in the hardware store. We planted it, harvested, and re-planted over three years. We have about nine pounds from the latest harvest.”

While that’s not enough for Mihalich to distill, it is enough to do chemical analysis to see if Rosen is significantly different from what is being used at Mountain Laurel now to make its acclaimed Dad’s Hat Rye Whiskey.

Todd Leopold, co-founder of Leopold Brothers distillery in Denver, is also experimenting with a heritage strain, called Abruzzi. “I’m not trying to be nostalgic,” he said. “I’m looking for older grains that have lower starch content, simply because that’s a sign that there may be something else in that grain that is of interest to me as a distiller.” Leopold has been distilling Abruzzi for two years now and is looking forward to tasting the mature whiskey made from it.

There is, however, one significant problem with many of these heritage grains. Dr. David Marshall at the USDA’s Plant Science Research center at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, points out that “the older varieties tend to yield low and tend to have disease problems.” There is fortunately a compromise, breeding them with heartier modern strains. “Then the farmer can make money,” he said.

On my Seattle tour, Hofmann and I wound up in Roozen’s pickup truck, driving alongside a beautiful field of barley, under a broad, blue sky. Roozen was explaining how he was coming to grasp the new crop he had. “Barley speaks barley,” he shouted over the rush of the wind and the thumping crush of his tires on the rock covered road, “but I speak people. Barley isn’t going to learn people, so I have to learn barley.” He laughed. “Then we can all get together, eat bread and drink whiskey, and that’s life!”