Despite all the strife in the world around us, it's been a refreshingly positive year for Mainstem. Our acreage, malting capacity, malt demand, strategic sustainability alliances, and heartfelt consumer interest in our missions are all on the rise, along with a fast-firming craft malt economy. THANK YOU SO MUCH for supporting these trends. There are, as always, big challenges ahead, but momentum is building.
Since it's been a while and I have a variety of things to shed some light on, I’ll break them out by subject below. If you have questions or further interest regarding any of it, please don’t hesitate to reach out directly (firstname.lastname@example.org). And be sure to sign up for our mailing list (at the bottom of this page) if you didn’t receive this update via email.
With a passion,
2017 Vintage Grains
Have you been to our 2017 Vintage webpages? If not, or if it’s been a while, definitely go check them out. You'll find our crop stories from 3 Washington & Oregon grain production locales, 3 growers, 6 fields, 3 varieties of malting barley, and just shy of 200 acres. We'll also be adding more detail as we start malting through the grain. This field specific, wine inspired, and highly transparent approach to malt production is definitely an industry first, and we hope you enjoy the experience.
In summary, our soggy spring, incredibly late seeding, and abrupt late-June transition into extreme drought conditions made 2017 a nerve racking year. We got through it by the skin of our teeth though, and we’re feeling very fortunate about the resulting yields and quality. Look to this year's grains as a high quality yet drought influenced counterpoint to our relatively mild climate 2016 vintage. Kernels are smaller overall. Protein is elevated but still largely under 12%. 98-100% germination. No detectable deoxynivalenol (a fungal toxin of concern in the malting industry). It should make for some high performing malt and I have a hunch the drought will show through in some unique flavors.
The biggest catch with the 2017 vintage is that we'll have to screen out more underdeveloped kernels than usual. While seen as a hassle or inefficiency in conventional malt production, we're actually pretty excited about this dynamic. It will give us ample raw material for experimentation with high enzyme distillers malts and high protein livestock feed, both of which will help us form important ancillary markets for a more sustainable dry farmed malt supply.
Rest assured, it's the kind of year we'll all learn a lot from.
Malt & Grain Pre-Orders
We’re inviting brewers and distillers to pre-order portions of our 2016 and 2017 grain lots, in both craft malted and raw form, for delivery through 2018. This will help us a great deal in planning the year ahead. Supplies are limited, so we’ll be allocating all of the grain on a first come, first served basis. It's still unclear to me how quickly demand will present itself, but several large commitments (~20% of the 2017 vintage grain) during the past month form a strong start to the curve.
Sign up for email communications (bottom of page), preview the grain lots on our website, and stay tuned for our release of a complete grain inventory sheet, which we’ll use to start firming up a production calendar. If you’re at all interested in our malt, I encourage you to reach out sooner than later. It should go without saying, but we'd love to work together.
It’s been a fun process to see our malt being incorporated into beer and spirits across local and regional scales. We’re picking up new accounts and most folks have been coming back for more, which feels pretty good. Check out the #MadeWithMainstem page on our website, see who’s been working with us, and go pay them a visit sometime if you're able. Also, if you have ideas on other PNW brewers who may be interested in Mainstem, please go ahead and let them know about us.
If you're one of the fine folks using our malt (you rock!), be sure to use the #MadeWithMainstem hashtag so others can keep tabs on your releases. The goal is to have a more formal tracking system in place someday, but this will have to do for now.
In the early planning phases of Mainstem Malt, Salmon-Safe certification was not yet a part of our sustainability framework. I was just a crazy water transactions practitioner, seeking a market-based tool to assist irrigated farmers with instream flow restoration projects. Then we discovered that a nonprofit called Salmon-Safe had been struggling for some time to rally a certified malt supply. Despite huge success with certified hops, they were unable to find a malt house small enough to manage a comparatively niche supply of regionally scoped, eco-labeled malt. So a fully Salmon-Safe beer was... dead in the water. Enter Mainstem Malt.
Craft malting capacity via Mainstem was the more flexible catalyst needed to bring the first Salmon-Safe malt to fruition. And quite frankly, Salmon-Safe has been a vital Mainstem partner in the extremely niche affair that is malt-fueled water conservation work. Collaboration is a beautiful thing.
Salmon-Safe continues to be our blanket standard for Mainstem growers. Land use does not exist in a vacuum, waterways connect us all, and our growers outwardly acknowledge their positive and negative impacts across the landscape. In most cases, there is room for improvement to water quality and fish habitat, and a farm plan is drawn up to guide progress on these fronts.
As Mainstem picks up momentum, we'll provide market-based incentives for our growers to go above and beyond the Salmon-Safe call of duty. Whether it's through innovative environmental water transactions work (i.e. our proposed Sprouting Streamflows program with irrigated growers), incorporation of certified organic practices, or innovation with perennial and rotational cropping systems, you can count on us to help farmers push the sustainability envelope.
Dry Farmed Malt
With our dry farmed malt campaign, we aim to combine supply chain water savings with an old world tradition in winemaking. The former plays into a mounting concern over the water footprint of beer and spirits. The latter plays into a mounting desire to explore how grain variety, location, climate, and weather can be expressed more effectively in beer and spirits.
Did you know that using irrigation for grapes is actually frowned upon by those adhering to old world winemaking principles? While a timely drink of supplemental water can increase winegrape yields, boost sugars, and enable wine production in more of the world, it also serves to squelch the more nuanced influences of soil and weather for a given variety (terroir). We apply this philosophy to malt. By cutting out irrigation and targeting production in select, rainfed grain production locales, we aim to get a more accurate read on grain's own terroir.
Dry farmed wouldn't be too wild of an idea in the Midwest or Europe, but it turns out that the vast majority of malt produced in the American West is made using irrigated grains. When you run colossal malting facilities, the wider quality range associated with Western dry farmed grains becomes too challenging to manage.
The tradeoff when using irrigated grains: a steep water footprint penalty for end products. A brewer may be thrilled to get their water usage down to 3:1 (3 pints of water to make 1 pint of beer). Meanwhile, irrigated grain can pretty easily add 300:1 to beer's total water footprint. For comparison, Yakima Valley irrigated hops add around 65:1.
Mainstem does not take the stance that irrigated grains are bad. Nor do we take the stance that dry farmed malt should be the new standard. First and foremost, we look to spread awareness regarding the total water footprint of beer and spirits. It's important to know that water conservation cannot stop at the brewery and distillery. With that in mind, we strive to empower the malt industry with tools that can simultaneously reduce water usage and elevate end product quality.
Our B-Corp Status
Last fall, we announced our Pending B-Corp (Benefit Corporation) status, a plunge into the world of “using business as a force for good.” It’s one of the ways I hope to strengthen and communicate Mainstem’s deep-seated, mission-driven nature, alongside other B-certified companies like Patagonia and Hopworks Urban Brewery.
This spring we engaged a friendly Canadian sustainability consultant to help us take a more objective look at our environmental and social sustainability framework, and we’re using this process to guide our transition into bonafide B-Corp status. While there are some other exciting developments that may delay this transition beyond our Fall 2017 target, I'm confident it’s only a matter of time.
A Look Under the Hood
Sometimes I get the feeling that folks assume Mainstem is a well funded and adequately staffed corporate affair. I think it’s important to note that we're still a scrappy, bootstrap startup. 'We' is pretty much just me, my VERY supportive wife Alyssa (of Oregon Tilth), some family investors, and a collection of well-aligned and high-performing strategic partners who believe in the Mainstem missions (i.e. farmers, maltsters, and a web of transportation and logistics pros).
On any given day I meet with our farmers and maltsters, document the growing season with a drone and other cameras, manage our social media and website, unload semis, inspect grain, clean grain, bag malt, draft contracts, travel throughout the PNW with my dog and pony show, lay inroads for development and growth… you get the idea. I wear a lot of hats and Mainstem is probably a touch understaffed.
The reality is that I’m putting everything into trying to promote a grand vision for Mainstem, in hopes that we can ultimately backfill the business with the resources it needs to thrive. So far, so good, and most things seem to be pointed in the right direction. Just please keep in mind that the ground level support from brewers, distillers, bakers, and their customers will have a huge bearing on the trajectory of the business. Your support very much matters.
Notes on Growth
To put it simply, success at Mainstem is measured in acres. Acres we empower with a more sustainable mode of agricultural production. And since the Mainstem engine is fueled by consumer willingness to pay, we’ll be looking for our fans to request, produce, and responsibly enjoy a lot more #MadeWithMainstem products.
To put it in craft beer perspective, the roughly 200 prime acres we had under contract this year will produce about 500 tons of grain in the average year. The cleaning and malting process turns that grain into about 375 tons of malt. At the craft beer industry average of about 70 pounds of malt per 31-gallon barrel of beer, we’re looking at a total beer yield of roughly 11,000 barrels. Getting thirsty?
The point here is that Mainstem must aggressively pursue growth opportunities in order to drive landscape scale change. 200 acres is a great start (even frighteningly large at times), but a comparative speck in the heartland of the Pacific Northwest. Will there be a point where demand for our malt allows us to support 2,000 acres of sustainable land management in the region? 20,000? Time will tell, but landscape scale change is certainly possible with a healthy dose of grassroots support, strong alliances, and a good bit of luck. I remain optimistic.