by Catie Joyce Bulay
“Malt is the new hops” was the word at this year’s Cascadia Grains Conference, presented by Washington State University in partnership with Oregon State University. Or, as Scott Fisk of Oregon State University’s experimental malt house more boldly, if jokingly, put it in one of the sessions, “We’re all here because hops is dead.” The sentiment rang true in this crowd of brewers, distillers, maltsters and farmers predominantly from the Pacific Northwest.
In its sixth year, and the first year it was sold out at 325 attendees, Cascadia Grains Conference’s purpose is “to strengthen the role of grains in our local food economy by sharing the latest science, techniques and developments, as well as by creating a space in which new business, policy and research relationships can form and existing ones can be strengthened,” according to their website.
“The conference is about marrying great ideas to successful enterprises,” Dr. Richard Scheuerman said in his presentation, “Tasting the Grains of Washington’s Early Economies,” during one of several hands-on field trips the day before the conference. Scheuerman gave a history of some of the heritage grains of the Cascadia region, while Rob Salvino of Damsel & Hopper Bakeshop gave tips on baking with these grains. Scheuerman, a retired Pacific University professor, co-founded Palouse Heritage Grains, a farm in Tri-Cities, WA where he researches, tests and grows early American heritage grains. During the talk, attendees took breaks to sample the grains in action in appetizers baked by South Puget Sound Community College and Damsel & Hopper, and paired with regional beers and spirits made with craft malting grains.
Earlier that day, field trips included tours of local breweries, distilleries and a nearby farm to learn about post-harvest handling and processing equipment, and a hands-on baking workshop.
On the tours and at the conference, held at South Puget Sound Community College, farmers mingled with brewers and distillers, and other adjacent industries and organizations, such as no-till farming advocates, maltsters, grain brokers, and farm conservation nonprofits. Farmers talked shop with other farmers, and gave away grain samples. Brewers caught up with other brewers and distillers and mingled with growers and maltsters, imparting a genuine sense of community over competition. Everyone wanted to learn from one another in working toward the common goal of promoting the local grain economy as a value-added product for the region.
“Cascadia Grains Conference is my favorite annual check-in with a wide range of regional grain nerds,” said Phil Neuman of Walla Walla Valley’s Mainstem Malt after the conference. “This was Mainstem’s third year in attendance and it’s clear that momentum is building for a grassroots grain systems overhaul. Compared to last year, I noticed that folks are talking about things like grain terroir and flavor exploration with much more confidence. It’s also clear that there’s a whole supportive infrastructure behind this brand of confidence, spanning public, private and nonprofit realms.”
Terroir and flavor was indeed a focus of several of the panels, as well as a portion of the research being done at Washington State University’s Bread Lab and Oregon State University’s Barley Project and experimental malt house. Brewers and distillers are just beginning to develop the vocabulary to discuss malting grains in the same way that the characteristics of aroma hops or wine grapes are discussed.
In “Brewing with Specialty Grains,” a panel of local brewers discussed their experiences and experimentations with malting grains and began building that vocabulary. Jason Stoltz of Top Rung Brewing Company in Lacey, WA said the first thing he looks at is what his base malt will be. He takes into consideration the varietal, its spec sheet, the size of the kernel, and level of kilning on the malt. Then he looks at adding additional specialty grains to enhance flavor. “Think about it as in a music setting or cooking,” Stoltz said. “Getting all of those layers in, but starting with your base malt.”
Jason Yerger of Ghostfish Brewing Company, a gluten-free brewery in Seattle, discussed the flavor profiles and possible uses of millet, buckwheat and rice, and what they can contribute to a bee, even for the traditional brewer in the same panel.
The five sessions of the day were broken into production, processing, business, and baking tracts. Sessions brought up questions, but also worked on long-term solutions, such as building a regional grains network.
It was a unique opportunity for brewers and distillers to hear the perspectives of the farmers they source from. “It’s really exciting. As a farmer you can’t survive on the commodity market,” said Dave Hedlin, of Hedlin Family Farms in Mt. Vernon, Washington. “My wife and I say we grow grains for fun and sometimes profit. So anytime we can find some added value we’re really excited.”
Growing grains for craft malting is a major shift for most Pacific Northwest grain growers, who operate in the commodities market where most of their grains are shipped overseas. They rarely see the fruits of their labor in a final product. Having the opportunity to taste a whiskey or beer made with their malting grains is a new experience for them. “To create something remarkable, create something you’re proud of is very exciting,” said Hedlin.
Along with 16 discussion sessions, two hands-on baking classes and a keynote address by June Russell of GrowNYC Greenmarkets Regional Grain Project, the conference was also a showcase of the grains it spoke of. Breakfast consisted of baked goods made in the previous day’s hands-on baking session. Lunch and dinner included bagels and pizza baked onsite by Portland’s Tastebud Pizza, in their mobile wood-fired oven. The evening closed with Best of the Cascades Tasting Tour, where regional brewers and distillers provided samples of their local-grains beverages.
Brewer and distiller attendees looked to a future where customers are educated about the regional and seasonal flavor variations in their products, and discussed how collaborating with one another can get them closer to that goal. “When we can get customers wanting to compare this year’s whiskey to last year’s and we can charge for it, we know we’ve gotten there,” said Jason Parker of Seattle’s Copperworks Distilling Company during the “Distilling and Terroir” session.
The session concluded with Tom Collins of WSU’s Viticulture and Enology Program summing up what will be the driving forces of a Pacific Northwest terroir for malting grains: a reflection of regional values – local, sustainable, heritage; an emphasis on flavor over crop yields; a synergy between food and beverage; and a reflection of the character of its maker.
“All told, I see this intimate Cascadia Grains community setting the upcoming grain trends for the Pacific Northwest at large,” said Neumann.