Bringing Back Barley
Saline entrepreneurs boost local brewing.
by M.A. Engle
Published in April, 2017
"All through our relationship, we talked about maybe owning a business together," says Megan Phillips Goldenberg, sitting with her husband, Zach Goldenberg, in the couple's bright new office in Saline. After Zach, thirty, completed his six-year tour in the Navy, they decided it was time. "I've always been self-employed," Megan says, so she could support them as they got the business going.
Their new business is Macon Creek Malt House, named for a modest stream near the farm the Goldenbergs bought when they returned to Megan's hometown in 2014. They'll produce malted barley, an essential ingredient in craft beer.
Zach is a fix-anything kind of guy who's also working on a degree in electrical engineering. Megan's into the local foods movement, and, with her master's degree in agricultural and natural resources economics, she knows how to recognize a glitch in a supply chain.
The meteoric craft brewing sector is a $22 billion industry nationally with a 20 percent annual growth rate. Michigan ranks sixth in the country in the number of craft breweries. Yet only two places in the state are malting barley, one of four traditional beer ingredients (along with hops, yeast, and water). "Part of why we're doing this is because the vast majority of craft brewers import the vast majority of their malted barley from Canada and the UK," Megan says. "And we thought, whaaaat?"
Michigan used to be a huge barley producer, and back when Stroh's brewed beer in Detroit, it operated a malt house where the grain was partially germinated, then dried in preparation for brewing. But when Stroh's left in the 1980s, Megan says, "the whole barley industry collapsed." What little is still grown is used mostly for livestock feed.
Once Macon Creek Malt House is fully licensed, which they expect by mid-spring, the Goldenbergs will join what Megan describes as the "renaissance of craft malt houses popping up across the country trying to re-localize this industry."
They'll malt the grain
in a cavernous space behind the office. "Zach has designed and built all of this equipment," explains Megan, because otherwise equipment for small-scale malting operations would have to be imported from Germany at a huge expense.
Zach explains that "the whole process takes about a week to go from raw grain to malt." Zach can tweak the process to change the character of the malted grain and the beer made from it. It might be nice and light for, say, pilsner, or somewhat richer and darker for a Vienna. Zach brings out samples and offers a taste. The grain is sweet and crunchy, a little nutty.
For now, they've contracted mainly with barley growers in the Thumb. While that's a lot closer than Great Britain, "I would like to bring it even closer," Megan says. "I would really like to have a farm in Saline under contract and a farm in Milan under contract."
Potential customers for the malted grain are plentiful. "There's a dozen breweries, in Ann Arbor, Saline, and Milan, we've been in constant conversation with," says Zach. "We won't be able to fully replace all of what they need, but they'd be interested in putting, say, one beer on their tap. That way they could say that the beer is 100 percent local. That's the goal."
[Originally published in April, 2017.]
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