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Challenges and rewards greet Alberta craft maltsters

Views: 21     Author: Site Editor     Publish Time: 2023-08-11      Origin: Site

Value-added ventures beckon families back to the farm

Red Shed Malting 

Members of the Hamill family toast the success of Red Shed Malting with glasses of whisky made from malt barley grown on the family’s Red Deer-area farm. From left to right: John, Susie, Matt, Joe and Daelyn Hamill. Photo: DAVID DINAN, HOT SHOE STUDIO

 

At the end of a recent forum on craft malting, podcaster Don Tse asked his guests a surprising question: “Are you happy with your business decisions?”

 

For three rural Albertans involved in the burgeoning industry, the consensus was “yes, but.” Yes, they’re happy with their choice, but anyone hoping to do the same had better love it with a passion.

“I think if you have that passion for anything and you really want it, you’ll make it work. If you can sleep at night with the risk you’re taking, then go for it,” said Alex Hogarth. She and her husband, Aaron, run Hogarth Malt near Olds.

The question was posed during a GrainsWest podcast called Craft Maltsters Add On-Farm Value. Tse quizzed Hogarth and fellow maltsters Matt Hamill and Sterling Hilton on what sent them down the craft malting road and asked about their strategies for success in a sector they’re helping pioneer.

Craft maltsters are a key link in a supply chain that ends in craft beer, a category of suds that has exploded in popularity over the past two decades. According to Just Beer Alberta, there are 180 craft breweries representing nearly 3,000 craft beers in the province.

But that’s still relatively small beer in the grand scheme of the industry, so the Hogarths — who don’t farm but buy their grain from producers — sometimes struggle to source sufficient malt barley, particularly when chasing the organic market.

“We’re looking for organic grains and organic isn’t a huge aspect of Alberta farming,” said Hogarth.

“There just isn’t as many people out there growing some of those things we would be interested in malting so we’re definitely building those relationships with farmers.”

However, she’s hoping Hogarth Malt and other like-minded maltsters will create enough of a value proposition that new organic farms will start up in response.

“We feel like our business can maybe give some glimmer of hope to some organic farmers to start trying new things and have an outlet for their product at the end of the day,” she said.

Hamill is unsure exactly when Red Shed Malting became a sustainable operation but he is sure it happened when he was working too hard to notice. The business is a malt barley processing and sales appendage to his family’s century-old Red Deer-area farm.

“It took a lot of sweat equity,” he said. “It took a lot of support from my parents. We got a lot of unpaid hours from all the family members. So it took a while before we were where we kind of wanted to be.

“Fortunately, we have kind of hit that critical mass and we’ve been able to undergo an expansion. And with the expansion, we’re at higher production capacity, we have a little bit more control of it, there’s some more automation in there. That’s helping with the economic sustainability of the business model.”

All three maltsters identified succession as a key motivator behind their decision to malt.

Hilton is co-owner of Origin Malting and Brewing, a Strathmore-based company that embodies the concept of “field to glass.” Malt barley is grown on the family’s fifth-generation farm, processed in their own malt house, turned into beer in their own brewery and served to customers in their own tap house.

It sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but it has also unlocked opportunities for family members to participate in the family business even if they’re not interested in driving a tractor.

“It gives them another avenue to be involved in (the farm) in a different aspect,” said Hilton. “It just broadens the ability to bring back people if they want to be involved in the family business.”

 craft maltster

Strathmore-based Origin Malting and Brewing is a field-to-glass craft malting operation based on malt barley grown on the Hilton family’s fifth-generation farm. The barley is processed in their own malt house, turned into beer in their own brewery and served to customers in their own tap house. From left to right: Lianna, Sterling, Gordon, Viola, Dane, Lynne, Spencer and Reid Hilton.

 

For Hamill Farms, the malt business is a huge part of a succession strategy. It has to be, said Hamill, to support three generations.

“Hamill Farms is a fairly small, 2,200 acre grain farm. It’s enough to support one family but probably not big enough to support my mom and dad, my brother and his wife and their family and my family. Acquiring additional land here is next to impossible, so value-adding was just absolutely essential to make the whole operation work for three families.

“It was a natural extension to the farm because we’re value-adding the stuff that we’re growing ourselves. And it’s an industry that we’re passionate about. So it was a pretty good fit that way.”

The Hogarths view the malt industry as a way to connect their children to their farming roots. That required a move back to central Alberta to pursue their craft beer ambitions on land they inherited.

“If we didn’t move back, our kids would not have that connection to it when we were long gone. So while we don’t farm on it, we hope they grow up knowing that this was the land that has been in their family for 100 years and they have that connection to it.”

Two years of COVID and the 2021 drought tested the resolve of all three maltsters.

But there have been more subtle challenges as well. For Hamill, dealing with more customers was among the challenges.

“Previously, the farm just had a few predictable buyers for some of the commodities we were producing, with fairly easy price discovery or set prices,” he said.

“Now with craft malting, and especially with us going into specialty malting, it means we’re dealing with a much greater number of customers and a lot more face-to-face is required; just open and frank discussions about costs and what some of the benefits are.”

A big challenge for Hilton was building a brand for Origin.

“For us, it’s definitely a huge venture going from producing a raw product, switching to value-added, and taking a finished product to market. And there’s the branding that’s involved. That ability to build a brand was all really new to us because the agriculture community is pretty new to that.”

The process required some soul-searching, he said.

“You’ve got to put some serious thought to what are your values. What are your cores? You have to find your value proposition. If you’re asking to get paid a premium, why should a customer pay a premium for your product?”




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