A friend recently shared the African proverb, "If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The power of these words resonated as I stood waiting eagerly for a silver car to approach the arrival lane at the Detroit Airport. It was 9:00am and the friendly, familiar face behind the wheel was Twila. We hugged, scrambled luggage into the trunk, and departed on our short but malt-filled journey throughout Michigan. Twila and I glanced at each other and smiled at our feat. Escaping from a malthouse and family is about as hard to execute as a trip to the space station. Our mission? Explore the beauty of Michigan, meet maltsters, and drink beer.
First stop was one hour away in Shelby. We met met up with Ashley McFarland to visit with Tom and Dan at Motor City Malt. The malthouse tour was awesome and we talked about winter barley, discussed debearding, and left with our bellies full of toasty malt and cold cut sandwiches. Next stop was Kalamazoo for a talk about Taste of Place at Bell’s Brewery. The flavor that comes from a region, like Michigan, can be distinct and we tasted that in the malt worts made from Bell’s farm’s malt. Compared to a commercial 2-row Metcalf blend, this malt was complex and had notes of vanilla, perfume-like aroma, and a ruby rich color. While drinking beers afterward, talking about the local impact of Marris Otter in the UK, a brewer chimed-in to say that this was just the beginning of a bright future of Michigan made malt and beer.
The next morning we slid into the Honda, figured out how to get a better music situation going in the car, and took off for a long day of driving and visiting malthouses. First stop was Pilot Malt, right outside of Grand Rapids. The guys at Pilot have grown over the past few years and their malthouse was another one to marvel at. Lots of beautiful barley from this year’s crop, getting stacked up and stored and a thoughtfully assembled lab that many maltsters would love to have. As we traveled north the roadside became dense with trees, the temperature cooled, and the landscape demanded our attention. Empire Malt was our next stop, nestled in the otherworldly place of Sand Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan. Alison greeted us and showed us inside her malthouse. Situated on a farm with hops, barley, hay and fruit growing around it, this malthouse is a piece of art welded together with skill and love. Alison also had beautiful barley grown from this part of Michigan and is just getting started making delicious malts that showcase the beauty of this land she loves. Us three women stood for hours as the sun went down, sharing the passion we share for malting. This passion was expressed by talk about airflow rates, beta glucanase, and steep schedules. As fast friends do, we pinky swore to stay in touch.
The fresh cool air and waning moon provided us with everything we needed to sleep deeply that night. We awoke to the sunrise, played in the dunes and then made the quick ride to Traverse City to visit Jeff at Great Lakes Malting. With a friendly smile, Jeff handed us safety glasses and started showing us around his malthouse under construction. It was dreamlike. Shiny stainless everywhere and turners, yes turners, in both of his 2-ton germ/kiln beds. Jeff has other enviable equipment like a diaphragm pump, water treatment systems, and lots of automation. There is no doubt that great malt will be made there.
As we pulled into the departure line at the airport, Twila and I hugged and smiled. It was a whirlwind but epic adventure and one that pressed a re-start button for each of us. Energized our malting spirits. At times, running a malthouse can be exhausting, beat at your spirit, and make you question, “Why am I doing this?” By taking the time to step outside of our own malthouses and connect with our fellow maltsters we clearly saw that the frustrations, the accomplishments, and the vision is not ours individually but a shared experience with a broader community of people. We are going together. We are going far. . . .