Beer is an agricultural product. It depends on farmers and their acres of barley. It also depends on maltsters, who germinate that barley and then dry or roast it to a shelf-stable finish, creating malt. Malt is to beer what grapes are to wine, offering fermentable sugars and responsible for the aroma, flavor, and texture of the final product.
For years, most North American malt came from huge companies on the Great Plains and in Canada. They were targeting large, corporate breweries, so they often prioritized efficiency and yield over flavor. You know the story. Better malt makes better beer, and a growing number of smaller-batch malthouses are reconnecting craft beer with its agricultural roots. Fortunately, some of the best are in the Midwest. Look for these names at your local breweries.
Black Gold Malt Farm, Cascade, Iowa
Facing falling corn and soybean prices, the fourth-generation farmers in the Miller family, who claim “bootlegging roots,” decided to give booze another try in 2018. Iowa’s first craft malt house gets its name from the rich, black soil of the state’s Driftless Region. They supply Hawkeye State craft breweries such as Jubeck Brewing, 5ive Cities Brewing, and Front Street Brewing.
Maltwerks, Detroit Lakes, Minnesota
On the edge of the bountiful Great Plains, Maltwerks is a larger operation, shipping product as far away as Ohio and North Carolina. It’s still a craft malthouse, though. Like every operation here, it’s Craft Malt Certified by the Craft Maltsters Guild, which means it produces less than 10,000 metric tons of high-quality, locally sourced malt per year, best enjoyed in releases from regional breweries such as Minnesota’s Tin Whiskers and Wisconsin’s Hop & Barrel.
Rustic Brew Farm, Marysville, Ohio
Fourth-generation Ohio farmer Matt Cunningham was growing the usual mix of corn, soy, and wheat when he decided to add barley and hops to the mix in 2014. He loved craft beer and wanted to connect his hobby with his career. “I sell directly to the breweries, and early on much of it was going door to door at these places,” he says. “I never really wanted to do sales, but this is a product I’ve made from scratch. I grew it and malted it myself.” He likes to educate drinkers about the process. “We have field days where people can come out and see the ingredients being grown,” he says. “With this you see the whole story behind the finished product, and it gives a different meaning to ‘local.’” Rustic Brew Farm, located northwest of Columbus, sells a full range of malts—from golden Pilsner to toasty Vienna—to Ohio breweries including Nocterra, Urban Artifact, and North High.
Sugar Creek Malt, Lebanon, Indiana
Some of the Midwest’s most unique malts come from Caleb Michalke at Sugar Creek, just outside Indianapolis. His historical and experimental releases, smoked over native persimmon and black walnut and air-dried in the summer breeze, have endeared him to innovative regional breweries such as Indiana’s Upland and Illinois’s Three Floyds and Scratch. Not long ago, he finished building the only Norwegian-style såinnhus—a smokehouse that rural brewers use to dry malt—in North America. Michalke says that Scandinavian brewers are happy to see an old tradition finding new life in the Midwest. “Ten years ago, they thought we were all a bunch of hillbillies making moonshine,” he says, “but now they’re excited about what we’re doing.”
West Branch Malt, Brunswick, Ohio
South of Cleveland, you’ll find the only combination malthouse and distillery in Ohio. West Branch sells Ohio-grown malt to dozens of Buckeye State breweries, including Little Fish, Sandy Springs, and Wooly Pig Farm. But they are their own best customer, showcasing what their malt can do in releases including a signature “Maltshine.”