Barn Owl Malt
After spending a number of years roughing it in the bush working for various mining and forestry companies, Devin and Leslie Huffman of Barn Owl Malt were looking to settle down into a less transient life and career, but still have a connection to the outdoors.
Not long after moving back to Eastern Ontario, the hard-working couple decided to relocate to the Huffman family farm homestead, located just north of Belleville. Once there, they began devising a way to take advantage of their appreciation for craft beer and the burgeoning craft beer scene that was developing in the Bay of Quinte Region.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of activity going on at my grandparents’ farm at the time. We knew we were coming back here and wanted to build something that was agriculture industry related. We toyed around with a few different business models and then we realized there was a gap in the supply chain for craft brewing with respect to Ontario grains on the malting side,” said Devin Huffman, adding that the property is 100 acres in size with 60 acres of it a forested woodlot and the other 40 being reclaimed for farming purposes.
“We have always been interested in craft brewing and we even thought about the farm-brewery concept. When we started looking more closely at what that entailed and the depth of the supply chain for that business, we recognized that there was a missing link – a hole if you will – in the supply. For us that was pretty attractive and the best part was there was virtually nobody doing this kind of premium, high quality malting, so we saw it as kind of a pioneering industry in this part of the province. That really piqued our interest.”
Huffman said he and Leslie believed that the Bay of Quinte Region showed a lot of promise in becoming a significant player on a much grander stage within the craft beer industry and both wanted to play a key part in helping the area’s brewers grow and flourish. Hence, the beginning of what is now Barn Owl Malt.
“I look at this region compared to others in the province and I feel we have a really nice vantage point being positioned evenly between larger markets in Ottawa and Toronto. And we saw a lot of the potential in this region thanks to a lot of the initiatives happening through Bay of Quinte and Prince Edward County, and all the marketing for promotions like the Cheddar and Ale Trail. There was a lot of support from local economic development officials who were really driving development in craft brewing. And there are so many great craft brewers already here and more opening up in the next little while, it all made the prospect of being an accessory business seem much more positive,” he explained.
So what is malt, and why is it important to the brewing process – particularly for craft beer? Essentially malt is what happens when you germinate cereal grains such as barley, usually by soaking them in water, but then at a precise moment you halt the process by drying the grain with hot air. The malted grain now develops enzymes required to change the grains starches into sugars – sugars which help in the fermentation process needed for beer. Other forms of malted grain are used to make whiskey, ‘malted’ milkshakes, malt vinegar and even candies such as Maltesers.
“If a brewer wanted to try to brew with just straight barley unmalted it would be really challenging to try and extract the sugar from that unmodified grain. Creating the fermentable sugar ultimately gives the alcohol content, and the malting process also gives quite a bit of the flavour, aroma and colour profiles to beer, which would be missing if you used just raw grain. Not including water, the malt represents about 90 per cent of the ingredients needed for the craft beer makers. So it’s pretty important to the process,” Huffman explained.
“The bigger macro-breweries will use malt to a certain extent. It is a relatively expensive sugar for the large scale brewers, so they will use some malt as a basis to get the colour and flavour to where people expect it to be, and then top off the sugar with either refined sugars or other cereals. But for craft, where the colour and flavour and aroma are much more important, malt is crucial.”
At present, Barn Owl makes three varieties of malt: Lager Malt, Pale Ale Malt and Munich Malt. The entire raison d’etre for the Huffmans is to make a superior quality malt – one that goes beyond the more commodified malt that one would purchase in bulk from a broker or feed operation.
“A lot of the differentiation between the malt styles comes down to the drying and the kilning and the temperatures you use. So higher temperatures will create a different flavour profile that a cooler temperature drying,” he said, adding that to ensure more precision and consistently high quality of product, Barn Owl uses a floor malting process.
“It’s pretty labour intensive, and that’s why it’s become so uncommon from an economy of labour standpoint. When the grain is germinating it creates its own heat, so we have to manage the grain bed fairly regularly and around the clock, just to make sure it doesn’t overheat or cool down too far. The goal is to maintain the most optimal germination conditions on the floor without using mechanical systems to monitor it.”
The biggest challenge, outside of building the malting facility and the equipment, has been getting the word out to potential customers about the benefits of Barn Owl’s premium product.
“We’re a very new product to be sort of a direct replacement for conventional North American malts. Our malts are designed to have a very strong character, a very strong flavour and a very strong aroma that’s unique to this part of Ontario. And that concept is a little bit challenging to sell because it’s actually not a direct substitute in a lot of recipes. For some breweries it requires some time and energy for experimenting and adjusting their processes to accommodate our malt,” Huffman said.
“Maybe we had our head down a little bit as we focused so much on the technology side of getting this whole thing off the ground. Maybe we underestimated the quickness of people to adopt the product. The big thing that has been helping is getting a reputation and a little recognition that what we are producing is a high quality product.
“Because we’re costed as a premium product compared to the normal commodity malt, the brewers need to be confident that not only is the product local, but that it’s of high quality so that there is some return on the investment other than just marketing it as ‘local.’”
But Huffman said he has been buoyed by the welcoming atmosphere and mutually beneficial relationships Barn Owl has already built with both farmers and craft brewers within the Bay of Quinte Region.
“We have been really happy with the response since getting into the industry. The growers and the brewers are our two main sort of relationships and things have been really positive. The farming community has been very supportive and interested in helping to grow the demand for local barley. Barley is traditionally considered to be a losing crop in terms of input and return costs. The pricing when dealing with malting barley is significantly better than feed barley, so it can start to make sense for growers to start to add it to their field rotation,” he said, adding that he has also been getting interest from farmers outside the region as well.
“And the brewers have also been great too. A big part of why we decided on going forward with this project was by seeing the sense of community that the craft brewing industry around here has already developed in such a short period of time. The relationships you see and the sort of collaborative nature of the craft brewers in Ontario is what pushed us to move forward with Barn Owl because we were seeing it as a community that would be great to be doing business with.”
For more information on Barn Own Malt, visit www.barnowlmalt.ca.