Are you curious about how we source grain here at Riverbend Malt House?

As the first malt house in the Southeast, we are proud to be a North Carolina company, and we are committed to growing a vibrant grain economy in our local region. How do we define “local”? We consider the Southeast (a roughly 500-mile radius from Asheville) to be our “grainshed”.

We source our grain from this region for three principal reasons:

High-Quality Grain

We place great value on sourcing the highest quality grain available in the region. Year after year, we work with our farm partners to select the best barley and other small grains in the Southeast.

It is vital for our business to work with the best quality grain available to us. We perform rigorous in-house testing and send harvest samples off to a third-party lab at Hartwick College in New York to ensure our raw materials meet our specifications. The Southeast can throw us some curveballs in this area. Some years, we have seen nearly all our contracts meet spec when our farmers avoid storms at harvest. In other years, we have been unable to accept close to half of our contracted amount due to harvest conditions that impacted malting specs. It’s important to us to build a safety net, sourcing from farms throughout the Southeast, to ensure that we have access to high-quality grain despite unpredictable weather and harvest seasons. A big rain event at harvest might lower yield, test weight, or cause pre-harvest sprout. It may also negatively impact many other important specs for malting.

We have also worked with our partners over the years to improve our malting barley stock in our efforts to provide high-quality malt in the styles expected by our customers. While our explorations with two-row varieties go as far back as 2014, it wasn’t until 2018 that we were able to source the volume of high-quality two-row barley needed to add these products to our lineup. It took a few growing seasons of testing out different varieties to discover the ones that are well suited to our climate and can consistently meet our malting-quality specifications.

Our Farm Partners

When we first started out, there was no established market to look to. It was no easy task to find farmers willing to take on the necessary risk involved with growing and supplying malting-quality barley. At first, only a few were willing to make a commitment to us.

Billy Dawson, in the Northern Neck of Virginia, was a pioneer in the production of malting quality grain in the region. He saw an opportunity to work with us and supply high-quality barley, and took on significant risk jumping into this new market with us. Sadly, Billy passed away a few years ago, but we continue to work with his family and business partners at Bay’s Best Feed.

Similarly, we have worked with Billy Carter for several years to source the Wrens Abruzzi Rye we use to make Carolina Rye malt. Billy grows this heritage variety for us as well as for milling companies in the region due to its unique flavor profile and in spite of the low yields and tough growing conditions. We are happy to be able to work with Billy to provide a market for this grain and support his farming operation in Eagle Springs, North Carolina.

We value the relationships we have built over the last ten years and hope to continue growing alongside our partners who have been with us from the start. We can’t thank our farm partners enough for everything they have done to help us produce the high-quality malt we are known for today.

Our network of partners now includes farms in North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and South Carolina. We look forward to maintaining these relationships in the years ahead.

You! Our Brewing and Distilling Customers

We take our responsibility to serve our customers seriously. Sourcing from a variety of sub-regions in the Southeast helps us to ensure we can meet your needs, providing high-quality malt year after year. It also allows us to meet customer demand for grain grown within the borders of the state you brew or distill in.

If you’re looking for a product sourced from your state, get in touch with us! And, of course, if you’re looking for high-quality malt from the Southeast, we definitely have you covered. We’re here to help and we love working with you on your new and exciting projects!

This time of year, we get a chance to take a breather and look back. I spent close to 2 months on the road this year covering conferences, sales, grower relationships and everything in between. A wild ride to say the least!

This year’s list (presented in chronological order) was driven more by experiences than by an individual pint or bottle. Let me explain…

Steinbock – Fonta Flora/Zillicoah collaboration 

I waited patiently for this one to be released. I’ve gotten more into classic German styles over the last year and this Doppelbock project got my attention. Brewed with our Munich malt and boiled with hot rocks, the finished beer was loaded with dark fruit and caramel notes. The finish was balanced and the beer was remarkably drinkable for the 8% ABV.

It was a chilly February night in the Zillicoah taproom and I remember feeling a great sense of pride that our malt could help bring something like this to life. Developing new products on new equipment was a huge challenge for our team in late 2018 and the two Munichs (Light and Dark) represented a breakthrough for us in many ways. The Doppelbock style offered the perfect platform to showcase their unique flavor profile and the guys at Fonta Flora and Zillicoah knocked it out of the park!

The experience reminded me of my friend Sean Lily Wilson from Fullsteam’s quote “There are beers for conversation and beers for contemplation” this one falls squarely in the latter category.

 

Oenobeer – Liberati in Denver

 This was a great meal. Matt and I joined one of my buddies from college for an exploration of oenobeer at Liberati in Denver. We were in town for the American Distillers Conference, giving us the opportunity to explore the city without the foot traffic associated with CBC.

Liberati specializes in wine/beer hybrids and old-world Italian cuisine. Think nut brown ales blended with Viognier grapes and stouts paired with Cabernet Sauvignon complimenting house-made mushroom fettuccine. The grape contributions ranged from a modest 10% to over 40% with varietals being sourced from every region you can imagine. We tasted through each of the 13 offerings which included classic English, Belgian, and American styles. Their current menu features a NE DIPA with Malbec grapes!

Being a weeknight, things were a bit slow and the staff started to turn up their favorite 80’s music to liven up the mood. This set the stage for a serious “name that tune” contest between the three of us, sprinkle in a few college memories and you have the makings of a perfect evening.

 

 

Cultura – Wicked Weed

A long-awaited release from the good people at Wicked Weed. I got an invite to attend a pre-release party at the Funkatorium. Cultura represents a series of three blends of spontaneously fermented beer that have been aging for over three years. Add to that three fruited variants and you have the makings of an intriguing evening!

Andrew and Jen, two of the crew that brought these lovelies into existence walked me through each of the six offerings. We compared tasting notes and reminisced about where we all were when these beers first came to life. The earliest batches were inoculated right there in the Funkatorium parking lot back in 2016. The grist for these brews featured our Pilsner, Appalachian Wheat, and NC-grown raw wheat. Simply put, these beers represent a true sense of place….a 21st century version of a (mostly) forgotten historic style.

I left with a 750ml of Blend 3 fruited with Muscadine Grapes which I paired with my smoked turkey on Thanksgiving. My family loves a good “food story” from Asheville, so I couldn’t resist sharing this one with them!

 

 

Kind of a “blissed out” cliché at this point, spend your money on experiences not things, but these memories will resonate more than any whale that I ever tracked down in my earlier days of craft beer fandom.

Hope that each of you can find similar inspiration in this industry as we enter this new decade.

Cheers to everyone for the love and support during 2019!

 

Brent

Last night was special. Once a year we open our doors to our friends across the Southeast for some beers, cocktails, and delicious food. It is a small gesture of thanks for all the support we’ve received in our efforts to build a food system for local malt.

Many that showed up brought beers to share, stuff that they were proud of…..think of it like a local malt themed bottle share!

I got a chance to sample farmhouse ales from a new customer in Tennessee, a lager from Georgia, and a two lovely spontaneously fermented beers from our own backyard. The barrel gins from Oak and Grist and the Chemist were also a treat!

For some, it is their first time touring a malt house and it is really fun for us to watch the light bulbs turn on as they connect with the blend of art and science that is malting. Malt has always taken a back seat to the sex appeal of hops, but we try our best infuse the story with heart and a few well-worn jokes about the early days.

Watching the community interact, sharing ideas and planning future collaborations is what it’s all about for us. Full blown beer festivals can be chaotic, we shoot for a relaxed vibe that fosters deeper discussions. We hope that folks come away with a better understanding of our craft and the myriad ways it can benefit their efforts in the brewhouse or distillery. We left with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment.

I want to take this opportunity to give a HUGE shout out to our staff that worked diligently to have the malt house looking spotless for the event. You guys rock!

Big thanks to everyone that provided the drinks for the occasion….I had a blast curating the tap list.

Check it out…..

 

Brewery Beer Style
Zebulon Artisan Ales L’Internationale Biere de Garde
Birds Fly South Prepaid Hustle Hazy IPA
Wicked Weed Appalachia IPA Session IPA
Green Man Festbier Lager
Twin Leaf Paradigm Shift Corn Lager
Bhramari Neon Ghost Hazy IPA
Anderby Pilsner Lager
Pretoria Fields Rye Charles Rye IPA
Albright Grove Lequire Table Saison Belgian Saison

 

Plus wine from the Biltmore Estate and craft spirits provided by the Chemist, Eda Rhyne, and Oak and Grist.

 

We look forward to seeing everyone again next year!

 

Cheers,

Brent

I feel like those inside the craft beer industry have been pushing for the “Year of the Lager” for quite some time. I don’t think we’re there yet, but forward progress is being made. Enter the inaugural edition of Lager Fest hosted by Resident Culture Brewing and Casita Cerveceria. This year’s lineup featured some heavy hitters…..Suarez Family, Russian River, Hill Farmstead, Heater Allen, just to name a few. As I made my way around the event, I was struck by the variety within a very narrow style window. 4.5-5% ABV and 15-30 IBUs and 3-6 SRM. Noble hops vs. new world varieties. Some offerings were bright and crisp, others delivered more biscuity malt character. I also enjoyed the opportunity to access a Russian River tap without a line!

As you might imagine, I have a keen interest in the role local malt can play inside of the growing lager trend. This industry heavy event offered an excellent opportunity to explore the space and pick people’s brains. Some brewers I spoke with were looking for flavor and character reminiscent of the classic continental Pilsner malts while others got excited about the terrior of Southern-grown barley varieties. This divergence offers both an exciting opportunity and a challenge for the craft malt industry. #1 – mirror the flavor profile and consistency of the legacy malt houses #2 – highlight the flavors of your region.

At Riverbend, we can address both through the development of custom malt program. To date, we’ve focused on single origin/single variety lots which deliver the bready sweet profile of a continental Pilsner. Blending different varieties and adjusting kilning temperatures add complimentary elements of honeysuckle and green tea.

What about the market demand?

The rise of attractively priced 15-packs of craft lager are shifting customer expectations for the style….making it tougher to sell 4-packs for $10+. This trend also makes it challenging to include premium craft malt in the recipe.

If we want a truly local lager our challenge is craft a beer (and a marketing campaign) that draws the customer into a conversation about the ingredients. Maybe that is accomplished with a name or branding that speaks to a sense of place or history. Maybe we need an eye-catching dry-hop regime (gasp!). Or maybe a new branding element that helps differentiate your product from others on the shelf. Something like the new “Certified Craft Malt” seal from the North American Craft Maltster’s Guild, perhaps? Learn more at www.craftmalting.com

 

 

 

 

 

There is no playbook, there is no map, and there is no net. We have been growing this business steadily since 2011 while navigating tumultuous seas of shifting market demands, agricultural infrastructure development, and crop failures. 2018 brought us face-to-face with the challenges of scaling each of these simultaneously and we did what we always do, make the road by walking.

The 2018 harvest was the most painful we have experienced to date. Painful? How so?

Mother nature socked it to us. The rain started in early May did not let up until mid-summer. For every inch of rain that falls in that period fungal growth increases and quality suffers. In most years, a central theme or problem area arises with the crop and we are able to adjust our process and move forward. 2018 brought us three distinct problem areas!

DON (deoxynivalenol)
This is a by-product of Fusarium Head Blight, a common disease that occurs in a wide range of small grains. Once infected the head of the grain shrivels and a mycotoxin can be produced. This mycotoxin can have negative impacts to human health and shelf stability in beer. We have a maximum limit of 1 part per million (ppm) for the barley we purchase. Maintaining this standard for the 2018 crop required us to decline a tremendous amount of locally-grown barley.

Figure 1. Diseased 6-row barley

Water Sensitivity
This one is a bit tougher to pin down. Water sensitive barley responses very differently to traditional steeping regimes than a normal crop. This can lead to an over-steeped or “swamped” batch where germination is erratic and uneven. The end result is poor extract and the potential for off-flavors is increased.

How did we tackle this? Testing, testing, and more testing! Water sensitivity is also a moving target where levels can increase or decrease with time, so our lab was busy for several months. We ran dozens of small-scale batches with different barley varieties and states of origin to determine an optimal steep schedule and grain mixture. The end result was a highly “personalized” steep schedule for every batch of malt we produce.

Figure 2. Mini steeps in process

Test Weight
Test weight has traditionally been used a general marker for overall quality of a small grain. A bushel of barley weighs 48 pounds. Excellent quality barley may exceed this, while lower quality grain will fall below that threshold. Wet conditions around harvest time can reduce the amount grain fill that takes place. The end result is lower test weight. For the 2018 harvest, we worked with our seed cleaning partners to adjust their aeration rates and screen selection to isolate the plumpest kernels. This resulted in a bit more loss, but maintained overall quality.

2019 Outlook
With more rain falling, we’ll be keeping an eye on our barley stands across the region. Our growers were able to plant everything we’ll need, but too much rain can stunt growth during the crucial early growth stage.

The last few weeks have been an exciting time at the malt house. In addition to our expansion announcement, we’ve been working with our network of farmers and researchers to coordinate this year’s harvest. Several key regions received torrential rains, making harvest challenging. A few farmers were able to harvest and gently dry the grain in the bins to preserve germination…. others dodged storm clouds to cut the crop at the appropriate moisture. We are now waiting patiently for our samples of 2-row and 6-row barley to arrive for testing!

I also took part in not one, but two field days last week. The first, hosted by Virginia Tech’s Small Grains program in Blacksburg, included a tour of their pilot brewing and malting facility. Virginia Tech will now have the ability to test malt and brew beer under one roof, giving them the ability to explore the terrior of regionally-grown barley!

A view of the pilot malting and brewing facility at Virginia Tech.

We spent the afternoon touring plots of Violetta and Calypso at Sinkland Farms in Christiansburg. These new 2-row varieties have shown tremendous potential in variety trials across the region. Data from these trials show increases in kernel plumpness and disease resistance compared to other 2-row varieties. Yields were also comparable to Thoroughbred!

Calypso (left) and Violetta (right)

My second stop was at the N.C. State’s Mountain Horticultural Crop Research Station in Mills River, N.C. Dr. David Marshall, from USDA-ARS, and Angela Post from Agricultural Extension discussed this year’s study design, which included a mixture of public and privately developed varieties along which were managed with different chemical treatments. After harvest, data from this station will be compared with other stations from across the state to determine which varieties will advance toward a public release.

Angela Post preparing for a combine demonstration (top). Violetta barley ready for harvest (bottom left). Dr. Marshall addresses the crop of brewers and farmers (bottom right).

We’ll be test malting several of these new 2-row varieties over the next few months. Our efforts will focus on flavor development and malt quality parameters for both brewing and distilling applications. Stay tuned for more information on the new era of southern grown malting barley!

Thanks to following people for making these field days a reality!
Dr. Dan Brann
Brian Wiersema
Wade Thomason
Dr. Carl Griffey
Dr. Wynse Brooks
Dr. David Marshall
Angela Post
Molly Hamilton

Our good friends at French Broad Chocolates received some great news from Garden and Gun Magazine a few weeks back. Their panel of judges selected the Malted Milk Chocolate Bar as a runner-up in the Annual Made in the South Awards!

Beautifully packaged local chocolate! (courtesy Garden and Gun)

As you might have guessed, our malt is part of this lovely creation. Specifically, our unique Heritage Malt. Once we’ve cleaned the malt, we send it to our local miller, Carolina Ground where it is milled into flour suitable for mixing into the chocolate bar recipe. Three local businesses, southern farmers, rich flavor…what’s not to love?

Read more about this collaborative project here.

Happy Holidays!

Our assistant maltster, Sam, has spent the last several months analyzing the various grain samples from this year’s harvest. We received two dozen samples from growers in four states. This year was by far the largest pool of applicants we had to choose from…really exciting to see the market for high-quality malting barley expanding in Southeast!

A typical 1 pound sample of cleaned barley

Our in house testing procedures include germination energy, germination capacity, sieve analysis, and visual inspection for mold/blackpoint, etc. In addition to this work, we sent samples off to the Hartwick College Center for Craft Food and Beverage for further laboratory analysis. These data include protein, moisture, pre-harvest sprout damage assessment, and mycotoxin levels (aka DON).

As the sample data began to arrive, a few trends became immediately apparent…..

  1. Endeavor barley (winter 2-row) doesn’t work in the south! Every sample we tested, regardless of location returned very low RVA (Rapid Visco Analysis) levels. These results are consistent with significant pre-harvest sprout damage which renders the barley almost unusable for malting purposes. This is the second year in a row we’ve seen these results, a clear indicator that it is time to move in another direction.
  2. Newly developed 2-row varieties offer more promise for the future! Several private breeding firms have developed a host of new varieties that perform much better than Endeavor across the South. We got a chance to test malt a few of these and the results were really exciting. If all goes according to plan we’ll be able to make these available to the public by next summer.
  3. Thoroughbred will remain a staple for Riverbend! Pardon the pun, but this variety will remain our workhorse for the foreseeable future. Almost every sample exhibited strong germination rates and low levels of disease and pre-harvest sprout.
  4. Malted Seashore Black Rye is absolutely delicious! We can’t put a number on flavor (yet), but we were able to purchase enough of this heirloom variety to malt a few batches. This variety diverges from our Wrens Abruzzi with a more pungent bready/earthy flavor that can deliver a rich, honeyed note to a variety of beer and whiskey recipes. Read more about it here. Give us a call if you’d like reserve some…supplies are limited!

 

Super tasty Seashore Black Rye.

 

I must confess, I’ve reworked the classic quote from Wendell Berry more than a few times in my quest to connect our clients to agricultural side of malt. So I had to laugh when I got the invite to speak on a panel with the same title at the inaugural BevCon in Charleston.

I’m honored to share the stage with my good friend Sean Wilson from Fullsteam Brewing, Diane Flynt from Foggy Ridge Cider, Ann Marshall from High Wire Distilling, and Sara Clow from Grow Food Carolina. In short, an all-star cast!

We’ll be discussing the distinctive ingredients and the unique flavors that they bring to a wide variety of regionally-focused ales and spirits. I’ll be sharing a summary of this year’s harvest in an attempt to capture the “ups and downs” of growing grains for a niche market.

The conference will also feature a laundry list of the South’s premier brewers, distillers, bartenders, and restaurateurs throughout the three day event. You should definitely make plans to attend!