|Andrea Stanley, co-owner (with her husband, Christian) and maltster at Valley Malt in Hadley, holds steeping barley, and, grown in her field, heirloom barley. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)|
Making malt something special
At the only malt house in the East, Hadley couple drawing attention
HADLEY - Having driven 90 miles, Doug Gladue arrives at his destination and parks in front of an old barn in a part of town known as the Commons. He will tour the area’s breweries before heading back home to Old Saybrook, Conn. But he came here for the malt.
“Welcome to the malt house. Let me get you your bags,’’ says Andrea Stanley, 34, a Ludlow native who owns and operates Valley Malt with her husband, Christian Stanley, 33. The two live with their three children in Hadley, where they sprout and dry locally grown barley, wheat, rye, and other grains to make malt, the chief ingredient in beer and spirits such as whiskey.
Valley Malt is used by Cambridge Brewing Co., Ryan & Wood Distilleries in Gloucester, Throwback Brewery in Northampton, Wormtown Brewery in Worcester, and several other establishments, including Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware. Though there are many breweries and farms in Massachusetts, until September 2010, it was impossible to find a beer made with local grains. That’s when Valley Malt opened shop.
Andrea Stanley dons an aqua V-neck T-shirt, galoshes, and tortoise shell sunglasses that remain perched near her brown ponytail as she hefts Gladue’s first installment of the Malt of the Month Club into the trunk of his sedan. Stanley describes the program as brewer supported agriculture, or BSA, in which members, who are typically home brewers, pay in advance for a season’s worth of base and specialty malts. Stanley uses that money to compensate farmers up front. By turning a crop into a product, Valley Malt occupies a valuable niche in the world of local agricultural, serving as the link between growers and consumers and creating demand for more of the raw materials.
“This sort of thing is something that I’ve dreamed about for years and years and it’s only recently become available,’’ says Will Meyers of Cambridge Brewing Co., who uses Valley Malt in hefeweizen and for a beer dubbed Valley Girl! which he describes as “session ale brewed with, like, locally grown and malted wheat and barley.’’ Meyers values the distinct taste of the Stanleys’ malts, which he attributes to their technique and small scale. “[Most] breweries are using malts that are grown in many, many states and blended together in a stream and malted by a maltster in Montreal or Winnipeg or Germany or England or wherever. So you kind of lose that sense of place,’’ he says.
Valley Malt also earns points for freshness.
“The malts that we make are not sitting in a silo for 12 months before they’re getting shipped on a railcar to then sit in a silo for another few months,’’ says Stanley.
She has been told that her malts generate an extra layer of complexity. “I’ve heard people say that it tastes more earthy,’’ she says. Hers is the sole malt house in the eastern United States and the only one in the country that regularly produces small quantities, ensuring a high level of quality control. “Since we’re malting each batch by itself, we’re paying particular attention to how that barley or wheat or rye is behaving.’’ Often they determine by touch when a batch is ready for drying, which they do by circulating air through the same vessel that the grains soak in. All of their grain comes from New England or New York, much of it is organic, and the Stanleys grow their own right behind the barn, including heirloom varieties once used for brewing but now largely forgotten.
The couple did not set out to become maltsters. They hoped to open a brewery but were disappointed that no options existed to source their main ingredient locally. They decided to make it themselves, first using a small, experimental tank and kiln combo built by Christian, who is also an engineer. They studied malting in textbooks and began to try their hand at test batches. Andrea attended a two-week crash course at North Dakota State University where she was the only student not affiliated with a large brewery. “They were, like, what the hell are you doing here?’’ she recalls.
In the field behind the malt house, the blue-green barley stalks trap the light of the sun in their tips and seem to glow. The plants ripple with the slightest provocation of wind, and it is impossible to repress the urge to reach out and touch them. Running a small-scale malt house bucks the current trend, in which most malt is made by large breweries in facilities as long as the block that Valley Malt resides on.
The Stanleys are following a precedent. Earlier, many towns had their own malt house. In fact, there used to be one in Hadley, right down the street from where Doug Gladue is now happily driving away.
Valley Malt is available at DIY Brewing Supply, 289 East St., Ludlow, 413-459-1459 and Northampton Beer & Winemaking, 154 King St., Northampton, 413-586-0150, or go to www.valleymalt.com.
Aaron Kagan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.