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June 14, 2017

Maine Food Insider: Allagash ups the ante to stoke brewers into buying more local grain

Photo / Allagash Brewing Co./Mat Trogner Allagash Brewing Co.'s brewmaster Jason Perkins, left, with Joshua Buck, co-founder of the Maine Malt House, in a field of two-row barley in Mapleton, where Maine Malt gets its grain from parent company Buck Farms. Allagash has pledged to buy one million pounds of locally grown grain annually by 2021, including from Maine Malt.

Portland’s Allagash Brewing Co., which last week pledged to buy one million pounds per year of Maine-grown grains by 2021, in a sense challenged other craft brewers in the state to buy more ingredients grown in their own backyard.

“As a state of brewers, we can do more than one million pounds,” Allagash brewmaster Jason Perkins told Mainebiz.

There are close to 90 craft brewers in the state making a $228 million economic impact in 2016 and employing a total of 2,177, both including multiplier effects from related businesses, according to the Maine Brewers Guild and the University of Maine School of Economics.

Allagash now uses 5.4 million pounds of grain in total, 115,000 pounds of which will be sourced locally this year, Perkins said. That’s about 2% of the total. The rest is from Briess Carapils Malt in Wisconsin, a long-time supplier to Allagash.

Perkins said the commitment to Maine grains could shave a bit from Briess orders, but the brewery grew 12%-13% last year and has grown 35%-40% other years, so it could sustain and even grow orders from the Midwest and Maine sources. He estimates locally sourced grains could at some point compose 10% of its grains.

He added that the company chose the one-million-pound pledge because “it’s a large enough number that it will aid expansion of Maine’s current grain producers.” 

Allagash will buy local grain from Maine Malt House in Mapleton, Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon Falls, Aurora Mills & Farm in Linneus and Maine Grains in Skowhegan, whose co-owner, Amber Lambke, was among Mainebiz’s 2014 Women to Watch. 

Stoking a nascent trend

Allagash already makes one beer that uses only Maine-grown grains. Called Sixteen Counties, it uses Maine Malt House two-row malted barley from Buck Farms, Blue Ox Malthouse two-row malted barley, Maine Grains’ raw wheat and Aurora Mills & Farm oats. Allagash also uses partial amounts of Maine-grown grain in Hoppy Table Beer, White, Saison, Tripel, Curieux, Black and Dubbel. The larger amount of local grain would be spread across the company’s entire beer portfolio.

But it isn’t the only craft brewer to use local grains and malthouses. Rising Tide Brewing Co. said it 2016 that it plans to use some Maine-grown and processed grains in every batch of beer it brews.

Maine Malt House co-owner Joshua Buck said 30 craft brewers buy from his operation, including Rising Tide, Bissell Brothers Bigelow Brewing, Maine Craft Distilling, Sebago Brewing and Marshall Wharf Brewing.

Buck said he was pleasantly surprised by Allagash’s pledge. But his family’s business, owned by himself, his three brothers, his father and his father’s two brothers, already was seeing an increase in demand from the growing ranks of craft brewers and had started to plan accordingly.

“We’re multiplying our capacity five-fold to one million pounds,” he said. That includes building more storage tanks for the barley and adding malting systems. He said the additions are funded by a bank loan for an amount he declined to specify. The expansion should be operational by this fall.

Buck said Allagash’s commitment, plus additional potential demand from other brewers, can be met by the current Maine grain growers and malthouses, which he said have been growing with the craft beer industry.

Maine Malt House started on Buck Farms in 2015, though the farm, which started by growing seed potatoes, dates to 1958. Buck is a third-generation farmer. The farm grows barley and oats as rotation crops for potatoes. In early 2015 it also started to malt grains for craft brewers.

Buck Farms grows 100 acres of red wheat for the breadmaking and baking industries and another 250 acres of barley for the craft beer industry. That 250 acres translates into 400 tons of raw barley, Buck said. When Maine Malt House processes it they lose 20% of the raw barley’s bulk. Currently, it can only process 200 tons, so it stores the raw barley, which Buck said doesn’t spoil, to make up for deficits during seasons with lesser yields.

The build-up

Increasing purchases to one million pounds won’t happen overnight, Allagash’s Perkins said. The company already is starting to build up to the full amount in 2021. The 115,000 pounds this year will grow to 200,000 pounds next year, then step up to 400,000 to 500,000 pounds and eventually to one million pounds.

Perkins said the date also allows farmers and malthouses to gear up their crops and storage facilities.

There are some infrastructure issues, Perkins said, primarily storage for the barley, wheat and oats.

Another issue is the cost. Locally produced barley, oats and wheat cost about three to four times more because the producers are small compared to operations in other states, even including shipment costs from non-Maine sources. But with the comparatively small overall amounts local products will make up, Perkins doesn’t expect to take a loss on buying them.

One advantage to local grains is they taste different than those produced elsewhere.

“There’s a different taste with the different varieties, and the agriculture differs in different areas,” Perkins said, noting soil and other factors.

That allows for creating different beer tastes in the increasingly competitive craft beer market, and working with farmers to experiment with other grains, like the white wheat Allagash is testing with a local farmer. “It was planted this spring and has a different flavor profile,” he said. “It has a biscuit-like character.”

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