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In 2015, brothers Jared, Joshua, Jacob and Caleb Buck, along with their father Bruce and uncles Barry and Brent, started the Maine Malt House — Maine's first large-scale malt production company — to cater to the state's growing microbrewery sector.
The operation has grown significantly since then, with sales that have quadrupled and a customer base that has expanded to 30 breweries and distilleries, from 10 or 12 customers the first year. By year's end, it will have a new building to house a standalone malting system that's five times the capacity of the system used now.
“We did our homework and learned as much as we could about the malting process,” says Jacob Buck, who spoke for his brothers. “We got a good feeling for it and now we've got a good number of customers and a good reputation.”
The operation is a division of the family-owned Buck Farms. The brothers grew up farming. Beyond going to college, none wanted to leave home. Jared, the oldest, went to Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle to learn computer-aided drafting. Joshua, next oldest, also went to NMCC to learn residential construction. Both continued to work on the farm through college.
Jacob and Caleb are twins; both went to the University of Maine Orono: Jacob studied electrical engineering and Caleb studied mechanical engineering. Jacob had summer internships at places like potato-harvest equipment manufacturer Spudnik Equipment Co. LLC in Idaho, but dreamed of returning to the farm after college. Caleb worked for a year in Seattle, at Boeing, then returned home.
“It's a special connection to be working with your father and uncles and brothers,” says Jacob. “It's something not a lot of people get to experience. And there's something special about this area. I think we're very fortunate.”
But they recognized that potatoes couldn't support seven family farmers.
“The potato industry is mature and we didn't have room to expand that,” says Jacob. The four brothers started looking for ways to diversify. “In our research, we stumbled on hops, so we visited breweries to talk hops. We went to the Sea Dog Brewing Co., and the head brewer talked about barley. We told him that we grow barley. He said, 'If you malt it, then send it down.'”
Malting changes the internal kernel of barley to make its sugars useable for brewers. The process is carefully controlled and closely monitored for a variety of factors like humidity and grain temperature.
With the promise of connecting to craft brewing as a booming industry, the brothers drew up a business plan, obtained two Agricultural Development grants totaling $95,000 to buy a kiln and quality-monitoring equipment, and invested sweat equity to cultivate 250 acres of barley. They built and automated additional equipment for cleaning, sorting and packaging; and traveled to beer festivals around Maine to recruit potential customers.
They set up operations in a former potato storage building, acquired or repurposed the equipment they'd need to start out, and added as needed. That includes things like the kiln, grain tanks, drying, cleaning and monitoring equipment, and augur conveyors. An addition to the building is now underway, to house the new malting system. The brothers, who do everything themselves alongside their father and uncles, plan to finish the addition by year's end.
Once it's done, they hope to achieve another milestone: “We consider ourselves a nonprofit,” Jacob jokes. “We're hoping once we're on the new system, that we can become profitable.”
Buck Farms plants 1,000 acres of produce overall. Of that, 250 acres in 2016 was barley. The brothers this year also contracted for 250 acres of barley from neighboring farms to stagger the planting and harvesting times. By mid-September, they expected to get in 40,000 bushels, near their capacity of 50,000. The grain can be stored for multiple years and malted as needed.
Demand is growing.
“Our first year was pretty slow,” says Buck. “Now we're selling to multiple breweries and distilleries in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.”
The operation has plenty of potential to grow, he says.
“A lot of that comes from current customers who would like to slowly increase” their orders. “We're betting on the fact that we can do it.”
Thanks to their new drying equipment, they've also expanded operations laterally, offering custom grain cleaning and drying services to other farms in the area.
“We now have infrastructure that other farms were lacking,” he says.
The brothers see their operation as an important model for Aroostook County.
“Especially right now, grain isn't really a cash crop for anybody,” says Jacob. “So finding a new market for that and being able to work with other farmers and support each other — being able to add that aspect to the farming community up here — is big.”