In the verdant woods outside Covington, Dane Scarimbolo brews local beer.
After graduating from Washington State University’s viticulture and enology program, Scarimbolo ’10 realized a wine startup would take a lot of money and time. He enjoyed making beer, so he opened Four Horsemen Brewery in 2015 with an eye toward an older, community-minded ethos that could please the beer equivalent of a locavore.
“I was adamant about sourcing everything from Washington,” he says. In that spirit, Scarimbolo sells his craft beer at farmers markets in the region, just like farmers offer lettuce, carrots, and berries grown locally. Scarimbolo knows the beekeepers who gather honey, the Yakima farm that grows hops, and the water that goes into his ales and lagers. He picks blackberries from across the road for his Black Zomberry Lager.
Yet, one local connection was only recently forged. For a long time, brewers couldn’t make a truly Washington beer, because they didn’t necessarily know where the very heart of their brews—malted grains—was grown, or even the variety of grain.
Since the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Chinese began brewing beer thousands of years ago, the only common ingredients—besides water—were grains that had been steeped, germinated, and dried to produce the malt enzymes needed for fermentation. Brewers make beer and distillers make whiskey from this malt. The Egyptians flavored it with dates, honey, and ginger. Modern beer, of course, flavors primarily with hops.
With over 30,000 varieties of barley, wheat, and other grains worldwide, brewers should be able to explore a multitude of grain flavors, too. However, after Prohibition the consolidation of the beer industry demanded grain consistency at the expense of variety. Malting companies and growers responded by concentrating on high yield, high protein, and low flavor grain varieties. By the 1980s and 1990s, it left the rapidly expanding craft brewing and distilling industries with few choices.
That all changed in Washington state in the last few years with the rise of a craft malting facility in Skagit Valley and another in Spokane Valley.
They came at the right time. “The craft brewing industry had been relegated to more or less use the same malt that was designed for big brewers,” says Charles Finkel, one of the craft brew pioneers in the state.
Charles and Rose Ann Finkel started in the wine business, then imported craft beers before opening Pike Brewing Company in Seattle in 1989.
“When we started, we presumed, naive as we were, we should be able to get local malt for our beer. Alas, that was not the reality,” he says.
It became reality when Wayne Carpenter, a former software executive, took an interest in malting grains around 2010 and founded Skagit Valley Malting. He brought in engineers to build a high-tech malting facility in Burlington for maltsters to transform local barley and wheat.
Now, in a warehouse just up the street from the WSU Bread Lab and Skagit County Extension, three huge stainless steel drums that resemble semitruck trailers spin slowly as they germinate and kiln barley and other grains from local farmers. Using smart sensors and automation in the energy- and water-efficient facility, the machines produce 20,000-pound batches. A smaller 400-pound malting machine runs experimental batches. The whole place smells like warm cereal.
Key to the operation, though, were partnerships with growers like Kraig Knutzen ’85, says Adam Foy, a manager at Skagit Valley Malting. While Skagit Valley is known more for vegetables and flowers, farmers plant barley and wheat in rotation with primary crops.
“At first, there was lot of skepticism about these grains, based on our location and varieties,” says Foy. “Were they capable of being malted? Would they be successful brewing malts?”
Foy says they proved that they could not only malt these grains, but that they have unique flavors and nuance. “With just a little difference in time, temperature, and moisture, you go from light sweet honey to darker with some raisin and prune notes, to even darker with toasty, chocolatey flavor,” he says, inhaling deeply from the samples at the facility.
Another future flagship barley for them could be NZ-151. Developed at WSU, it failed over on the east side of the state, but found its home in the maritime climate of Skagit Valley.
Skagit Valley Malting works with around 50 breweries and 8 distilleries, says Foy, all looking to test those new flavors. “Without blending, we can call out a variety from a specific year from a specific farmer.”
One of the first consumers was Pike Brewing. Their Locale series first featured Skagit Valley Alba, a pale ale with a base malt of Alba barley grown by Knutzen Farms, a sixth-generation enterprise near Burlington. The Knutzens, including Kraig’s son Tyler ’13, Kristi Gundersen ’83, and several other WSU alumni, primarily grow potatoes.
They gain economically from selling their cover crop to Skagit Valley Malting, but they also see and taste a delicious result.
“I don’t want to underestimate the pride of place,” says Finkel. “When Dave Hedlin, Kraig Knutzen, or John Roozen (’74) drink a Pike Locale, they’re proud.”
Finkel notes the similarity to wine in the state, which started with just a few grape varieties and now has over 150 specialized and intense varietals. For grains, he says, “we sacrifice a little of the yield per acre for flavor just as they have in the wine industry.”
Back in Covington, Scarimbolo and his business manager and sister Dominique Torgerson ’08 don’t mind staying small, if it means staying local and sustainable. At the brewery, Scarimbolo grows 10 hops varieties, uses spent grains for chickens, and recirculates water for cooling. Using a DIY roaster, he makes rich chocolate malt for his award-winning Black Plague Stout. Mostly, says Scarimbolo, he doesn’t want to be just another brewery.
“Where I’m at, there’s not another brewery for seven or eight miles. There’s a brewery every quarter-mile in Seattle,” he says.
The Palouse River cuts through the hills between the small towns of Endicott and St. John, in a valley where old grains flourish. With names like Purple Egyptian and Scots Bere, the barleys and wheats on Palouse Colony Farm look and taste unlike any other grains.
Don and Richard Scheuerman’s German ancestors settled on this land in the late 1880s and applied their Old World agrarian knowledge, first learned in the Russian Volga region, to their new home on the Columbia Plateau. In 2015, the Scheuermans and the Ochs family re-established the homestead with heritage grains, grown sustainably with three-year crop rotations.
Called “landrace” crops, the Scheuermans grow and sell ancient prehybridized wheat, barley, oats, rye, and other grains through Palouse Heritage Grains. For example, says Richard ’73, they re-established the first wheat ever grown in the Northwest, Hudson’s Bay White. A history buff who has written extensively about the state’s agricultural past, Richard is an education professor at Seattle Pacific University.
His brother Don manages the Palouse Colony Farm’s 30 acres. (We’re the smallest farm in Whitman County, jokes Don.) They credit WSU grain researchers Steve Lyon and Stephen Jones with helping track down and promote the landrace varieties. Leading a renaissance in breadmaking, the WSU professors tap into the complex flavors infused in the landrace grains like Lammas and Turkey Red wheat. The new “culinary malts” offer another use for malted grains. They’re also more nutritious.
“These landraces have much deeper taproots, and they pull up micronutrients that have interesting nutritional implications for the brews and the breads,” says Richard.
Sitting on the table at Palouse Colony, a vase full of Purple Egyptian barley delivers a vibrant punctuation. The grain is indeed a deep purple and goes back to ancient Egypt as a malting variety.
Pike Brewing used some of the Purple Egyptian in its Locale series, and Spokane area bakers and brewers are discovering the unusual barley.
“That Purple Egyptian is magical,” says maltster Joel Williamson. “The flavor is fruity. How can fruit flavor come from a barley? Usually that’s hops or actual fruit.”
Williamson malts Purple Egyptian at Palouse Pint in Spokane, along with other landrace grains from the Scheuermans. Palouse Pint was established in 2016 as part of farmers cooperative LINC Foods, managed by Williamson and Beth Robinette.
The cooperative delivers local food to universities and other institutions in the area, but Williamson says they wanted some off-season income. His interest in homebrewing inspired the craft malting idea. Soon they had a space in a Spokane Valley industrial area where Williamson directs the malting effort. He also helps lead a national craft malting guild.
He says one of the original LINC farmer-owners, Bill Meyer of Joseph’s Grainery near Colfax, provided enthusiastic support and one of the popular malting grains, Baroness barley. He also grows WSU-developed Cashup winter white wheat, which has proven a popular malt variety.
“Grain growers don’t usually know who’s using their grain,” says Williamson. “Here they can say with pride, ‘That beer was made with my grains.’”
Palouse Pint works with a growing number of brewers and distillers, and several are anxiously awaiting another of the Scheuermans’ landrace grains, Scots Bere. The legendary barley was prized by Scottish brewers and distillers for its high levels of fermentable sugars. It is cultivated on the Orkney Islands, perhaps back to Neolithic times.
The maltster and Palouse Heritage Grains had a seven-week Purple Egyptian collaboration with Bellwether Brewery in Spokane in the spring. Events like this can raise awareness, says Williamson.
“The local movement that drives the food side of our business is the same movement that will drive the malt side of the business. It’s just a little further behind,” says Don Scheuerman.
Williamson, Finkel, and the Scheuermans all note that craft malting is a return to the past. Just as there used to be flour mills in every small town, there used to be multiple maltsters in Spokane, Colfax, and throughout Washington, often connected to different breweries, in pre-Prohibition years.
The grains in those older malthouses brought variety to breweries and distilleries back then, and the new malts, sourced from local farmers, will bring distinct flavors to the industry today.
“Craft beer has a whole other age of exploration to go through,” says Williamson. “I’m excited about the wine-ification of beer. There’s more creativity to come.”