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 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!

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 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.

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!

This weekend we are headed to the Raleigh/Durham area for the 2011 Sustainable Agriculture Conference that is hosted by our friends at Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.  They have compiled an amazing line-up of foodies, farmers, and permaculture professionals for several days of workshops and presentations.

But you know what we are really stoked about?…..the first batches of brew from Weeping Radish using Riverbend malts will be featured this weekend!!

Uli (owner of Weeping Radish) will be bringing along a sneak peak of their seasonal Doppelbock.  Keep an eye out for this one in December, they are planning to release a limited number of bottles and kegs throughout the state.

Riverbend will also be part of a roundtable discussion on small grains with Sean Wilson from Fullsteam, Ben Haynes from Looking Back Farms (our wheat grower), and Jennifer Lapidus of Carolina Ground, L3C.  We’ll be covering the full spectrum of the process from the seed to the fermenter….should be fun…not as much fun as drinking beer, but fun.

Stayed tuned for more new beer release information in the weeks ahead…word is getting out!

I spent most of last Wednesday in our Sprinter van…running the gauntlet of I-40 for close to 500 miles.

I met with our buddy Uli Bennowitz, from the Weeping Radish Brewery, by the side of the road and dropped off our first shipment of malt!  Weeping Radish is located near Manteo and focuses primarily on German styles.  Although their beer is not currently available in WNC, they are expanding their distribution channels and offer shipping services on their website, if you are interested.  Some people around Asheville may not realize it, but Uli was responsible for “legalizing” the first microbrewery in North Carolina almost 25 years ago.  He has since branched off into an array of new business ventures focusing on locally grown, sustainable meat and produce.  If you are planning a trip to the Outer Banks…check ’em out.

After our brief meeting, I headed for Fullsteam in Durham.  These guys are pioneers in their own right….anyone who can make beer out of red beans and rice or kudzu deserves some attention.   They have been a big supporter of our project since its infancy, and we really appreciate the support.  They are planning to run some test batches using our Heritage Malt and Carolina Rye next week.  Maybe a nice spicy rye IPA release before Thanksgiving???  I’ll also take this opportunity to make a shameless plea for the bottling or re-release of the Cheerwine Saison…

Learn more about their “plow to pint” approach to brewing at

My final stop was the riverside “happening hamlet” of Saxapahaw.  I met with Ben, the proprietor of Haw River Farmhouse Ales, to discuss their new brewery slated to open sometime next year.  We kicked around a lot of different ideas on how to build the beer economy in our state…agritourism, local sourcing of ingredients, and building relationships with farmers in every region.

Follow their progress at

I arrived home sublimely exhausted…knowing that NC’s beer scene will continue to develop into a vibrant and durable part of our economy.  Who knows?  Maybe a southern style ale, saison, or hefeweizen is closer than we think.