So this is pretty special…a few weeks before AVL Beer Week we got an email from Matt at New Belgium requesting a tour of our humble establishment during their stay.  Naturally, we obliged.  On paper, our two businesses are a great fit…both committed to sustainability and maintaining a high quality of life for their employees.  We just weren’t expecting our meet and greet to occur so soon after their big announcement.

It worked out beautifully.  We hit it off immediately with Matt, Grady, and Drew over a few beers and locally sourced malt balls from French Broad Chocolate Lounge.  We took them through the tour, highlighting our swanky new kiln controls and old-school malt rake.  I’m not sure what they were expecting, but they seemed genuinely impressed with our process and finished products.

new Belgium visit

Brian discusses germination with the guys from NBB

During the tour we happened to mention that the kiln needed to be loaded sooner than later as the malt had completed the germination phase of the process.  They offered to lend a hand, and we took them up on the offer!  We dusted off the wheelbarrows and went to work shoveling green malt off of the floor.  Too fun!

After the tour, we spent some time talking shop….when will Le Terroir come back?  Is Clips of Faith returning to AVL (yes, September 7th!)?  All in all a great morning of beers and conversation with some great down-to-earth guys.  I’m sure you’re wondering…will Riverbend Malt make its way into a New Belgium brew?  Stay tuned, we’ll let you know!

Over the past few weeks we’ve been hard at work making some much needed improvements at the malt house. The main focus (as always) has been the kiln. This little room has caused many a sleepless night for us, as there is no “textbook” method of designing, building, and operating these things at our scale. Our first design/build worked well, but didn’t give us the capacity we need to meet demand (or turn a profit!).

As the orders started to stack up in early March, we knew it was time to take to the next step forward. We enlisted the help of our friends Andrea and Christian at Valley Malt.  After speaking with numerous engineers across the country who just didn’t “get it”, it was a welcome change to have an in-depth discussion with Christian.  These discussions generated several upgrades to system…better ventilation, more air flow, etc.  All of which will translate into larger, more consistent batches of locally grown malt!

Game plan in hand, we purchased a new fan/motor and scheduled our subcontractors to install the new duct work.  Installation of all of this new equipment halted malt production for several weeks, but we are back online and moving fast!

The next phase of improvement will involve the installation of process controls.  These gadgets will allow us to program temperature and fan speed settings for each style of malt we produce.  We’ll even be able to adjust humidity and temperature from our smartphones…pretty cool, huh?


New duct work and fan assembly


As any musician will tell you, there is a sweet spot where you are “in the pocket” and things just start to click……I think we are getting there!  We’ve been actively producing malt just about everyday this year and the orders are starting to pile up.  We’ve also got several great beers heading out to the market with our malt in them.  Check it out…

Pisgah Brewing Company (Black Mountain) – Riverbend Brown available in growlers, kegs, and at the brewery this week.  Our Heritage Malt comprises >80% of the total grain bill for this beer!

Fullsteam Brewing Company (Durham) – One Hop Rye IPA available at the brewery.  This ones uses our Carolina Rye Malt which is made using a variety of rye called Wrens Abruzzi.  This variety has been grown in NC since the 1800’s.

Weeping Radish Brewing Company (Grandy…Outer Banks) – Smoked Hefeweizen available at the brewery.  A new twist on a classic style that features our Appalachian White Wheat.  If things go well in the tap room, this one might get bottled and distributed later this spring.

We’ve also got a few projects in the works with our new friends at Nantahala Brewing Company and Mystery Brewing Company down in Hillsborough.  We’ll keep you posted as things develop.  Cheers!

Last week we gave a tour to a group of students from Warren Wilson College.  The students were part of an ethnobotany class taught by Jay Bost.  This was a new audience for us, but it gave us a great opportunity to focus on some of the sustainability aspects of our work that are often omitted during a typical tour.  We started with a brief overview of the commodity markets that control the price of grain and transitioned into the “day in the life” of a maltster routine that Brian and I have been perfecting over the past several months.  We also covered some of the basics of brewing beer, just to get them in the mood for spring break!

warren wilson

Professor Simpson lectures on the importance of steeping intervals…

The student were engaged in our discussions regarding fossil fuel consumption, development of local food systems, and brewing quality craft beer from 6-row barley.  We also got a chance to learn about several of their class projects, like growing mushrooms on compost material and brewing beer from moss!  Needless to say, this was much different than my college experience….they’ve got a great thing going out there in Swannanoa.

As with most things in life, everyday brings a new set of challenges in the malt house.  One of the major issues we’ve been dealing with is grain raking.  Specifically, how to accomplish this task without breaking our backs.  As the batch sizes got bigger over the first few months, we quickly realized that our first malt rake had a tendency to float to the top of the bed after just a few feet of travel leaving the germinating barley relatively undisturbed.  This was primarily due to the lightweight design which utilized stainless steel.  Since the rake was now relegated to the “finesse” portion of this process, we were forced to use a grain shovel to manually turn over the bed.  Trust me, shoveling 800+ pounds of grain on a Saturday night ranks right up there with root canals in my book!

Given the futility of this effort, we went back to the drawing board.  Scouring old textbooks, magazine articles, and the internet to fine-tune our design.   Information in hand, we went back to our friend Stefan at Steebo Design to build us the burly ass rake you see below.  She clocks in at a hefty 35+ pounds and rips through the grain bed in 10 minutes flat!

malt rake

Let me take a minute to walk you through some of the design features and process.  The 3 triangles are welding together to form a solid plow.  During our raking, the grain slides up the triangle and is “split” by one of the 3 tines.  This process untangles the rootlets from the individual kernels and introduces fresh air into the grain bed.  The malt rake also has an adjustable gear located at the top of plow.  This allows us to adjust the approach angle to our different heights (I’m 5’7″, Brian is closer to 6′) and grain bed depths.  A HUGE improvement over that grain shovel!

Call us to schedule a tour…maybe we’ll let you take her for a spin!

A few weeks ago, I headed down to the Organic Commodity Conference held in Rocky Mount, NC, that was arranged by our friends at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA).  This event offers a chance for farmers, scientists, policy makers, and end users to get to know one another.  It also provides a great opportunity for someone with little to no farming background (like myself) to really get a feel for the market pitfalls, certification headaches, and soil fertility issues that our growers face every year.

Many of this year’s presenters focused on a common problem encountered by organic farmers: matching nutrient availability with plant growth cycles.  Simply put, many of the organic fertilizers available do not provide nutrients that are immediately available to plants.  These amendments, such as chicken litter or compost, must be chemically altered by microbes in the soil ecosystem before they can be utilized by plants.  Researchers presented new guidance on testing procedures, scheduling, and economic analyses which were designed to help growers maximize yield without breaking the bank.  Most of the sessions were followed by a great “Q&A” period where growers and scientists exchanged information on the latest pricing, shipping rates, and individual experiences; all of which facilitated an exchange of information that I found greatly beneficial.


Over 200 attendees at this year’s conference!

After filling our heads with the latest in organic farming data, it was time to fill our bellies at the local Mexican restaurant, “El Tap” as it’s known Down East.  I can say that, as I grew up about 20 miles from the conference site.  By the time dinner arrived, our crew had pretty much taken over the place….several farmers (Kenny Haynes and Herb Winslow), NC State’s research team (Chris Reberg-Horton and staff), Carolina Ground (Jennifer Lapidus), and Nick Williams (Head Brewer at Weeping Radish all sat down to salsa, guac, and burritos.  The conversation covered everything from compost tea to the explosion in craft beer production throughout North Carolina.

During the long drive back, I got a chance to think about all the aspects of the beer economy, and how these types of conferences are essential to supporting the development of this market for farmers and processors like Riverbend.  As Sierra Nevada and New Belgium make plans to expand into our state, it only makes sense to foster the research and development necessary to produce the barley, wheat, and rye that will ultimately fill their mash tuns.  Both companies have a proven track record of environmental stewardship and will no doubt look to our researchers and farmers for a high-quality locally-grown product that reflects our southern heritage.

Check out this great article by Anne-Fitten Glenn. asked her to expand her article about Riverbend from the Mt. Express to include other micro-maltsters across the country.  We are a small group, but each of us has the same goal….to produce an artisan product that supports our local farmers.

Read all about it here.

So this is pretty exciting news!  We have been working the folks over at Arcade Asheville on a special beer release to celebrate their 1st anniversary on New Year’s Eve.  That evening we will be releasing the first kegs of “8-bit Ale” to the public starting at 5PM.

The “8-bit” name was chosen in honor of the early Nintendo game console that we all grew up playing… know the one I’m talking about.

The beer recipe features our Heritage Malt, which comprises over 70% of the total malt bill.  The remaining portion is made up of specialty malts such as Munich, Crystal, and Red Wheat. Hop character leans heavily on the floral and citrus notes provided by late additions of the Centennial and Cascade varieties. Dry hopping with several pounds of the wildly popular Citra variety also lends a distinct tropical fruit aroma to this sessionable delight.

In short, the perfect beer to sip on the patio or the dance floor!

Looking for a unique gift for the homebrewer on your list?  How about some local malt to brew with?

We just dropped off a fresh batch of malt at 2 Asheville homebrew shops.  Please check out Asheville Brewers Supply on Merrimon Avenue or Fifth Seasonon Banks Avenue (downtown).  Both of these shops can tell you all you need to know about working with our 6-row barley.

Just our way of helping you get into the Christmas spirits!

Happy Holidays from your friends at Riverbend.

Last week I got a phone call from the good folks at the Blue Ridge Distilling Company based in Golden Valley, North Carolina.  We started talking about local grain production, craft distilling, and the challenges of running a small business.  By the time the conversation was over, we were both excited about the idea of producing local spirits, and I made plans to visit their facility the following day.  I also realized that I had a fair bit of googling to do!

While the differences between bourbon, whiskey, and rye might be “old hat” to most folks in this part of the country….there is a new wave of craft distillers that are exploring new recipes, ingredients, and production methods.  For example, Blue Ridge is planning to produce a “single malt” vodka, crafted with 100% malted barley (as opposed to a blend of corn, wheat, or potatoes).

I arrived late the following afternoon to discover a newly constructed barn with close to 100 acres of prime farmland wrapped around it.  While I’ve seen plenty of high-end brewing equipment, I must say this was my first glance at a modern distillery, and it was pretty impressive!  The picture below shows a “hybrid” system that allows for traditional pot stilling techniques in the center vessel or multi-chambered distillation through the column on the left.  The bulbous feature on the pot still is referred to as the whiskey helmet.  This design element provides more surface area during the distillation process, resulting in a smoother tasting finished product.

Whiskey Helmet

Blue Ridge Distilling’s pot still & distillation column

Tim at Blue Ridge and his team brought me up to speed on their plans to produce vodka, gin, whiskey, and an array of brandies.  Turns out, they have been developing this business for almost two years and are eager to begin distilling and packaging in early 2012!

Following our meeting, we sent them home with 100 lb. of our heritage malt to conduct some testing.  Who knows, local vodka could be just around the corner!

As for the whiskey, we will have to be patient….extremely patient….it has to age a minimum of 3 years.  Call Blue Ridge to reserve your own barrel now!