Written by Jennifer Fitzgerald | Photos by Anthony Harden
For Brent Manning and Brian Simpson, a triple bottom line approach to business turned out to be exactly what they needed.
Brent Manning and Brian Simpson took a leap of faith when they started their business.
“We jumped out of the plane, because in October of 2010, when we contracted our first barley crop, we didn’t know how to make malt; we didn’t have a finished business plan; we didn’t know where we were going to set up the business,” Brent says. “I freaked out,” Brian says. “We don’t have any money. We don’t have a building to malt in. And we’re going to have 40,000 pounds of barley in eight months.”
Brent was 33 and a wetland scientist; Brian was 38 and a geologist; and those 40,000 pounds of barley were the beginning of Riverbend Malt House.
This was definitely an encore career for both of them. They worked for the same consulting firm in Wilmington and their wives were in grad school together. Brent would go in and delineate the wetlands, then Brian would come in and assess the soils for new construction projects. There was a lot of back and forth between them.
They knew the economy had overheated, and they needed to find something more sustainable, so they started thinking about things that were agriculturally-based, durable, and offered a consistent opportunity for growth. Craft beer kept coming up in the discussion. Brent’s homebrewing background led them to try malt. They wanted to be in Asheville and made the move here not knowing what the future would hold.
The pair’s goal has always been to produce locally farmed artisan malts for local brewers, while at the same time lessening the impact on the earth. They had much to learn, however, about the craft and how to connect the local farmer and brewer.
“We knew that if we didn’t take a risk, because of the nature of the growing season, it was going to be 18 months before we could work with North Carolina grain,” Brent says. “As luck would have it, by the spring of 2011 we had a strong business plan, we signed a lease on 2,000 square feet, and we had two tickets to Canada. By the fall of that year, we had kicked out our first successful batch of malt. It was a lot of fun—a lot of challenges along the way. We have a great group of growers and customers now.”
In June of 2011, they headed to Canada to study at Winnipeg’s Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre.
“They didn’t have a program,” Brian says. “We called them and asked them, ‘How do you feel about teaching two guys how to make malt?’”
Their request was met with some laughter, but a program was developed for them that consisted of 50 hours a week for three and a half weeks. It was like getting a degree at a university in malt science. Now the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre offers a malting program for those just starting out in the malting craft.
You may be asking, what is malt, and more important, what role does it play in producing beer? Malt is grain that has been dried in a process called malting. It is one of the main ingredients in beer. Many are familiar with hops, another ingredient in beer, but malt is beginning to come into the customers’ mindset. You can have beer without hops, but not beer without malt. It takes two pounds of malt to make one gallon of beer, compared to an ounce of hops needed to “hop” that volume of beer.
The two were definitely on to something big. This whole malt renaissance has re-connected brewers to the agriculture side of their business. We are in a position now with craft beer that there are unique opportunities showing up all over the place.”
Most malted products were produced in large malt houses in the Western United States and Europe, placing a strain on the environment to ship the malt across the country to brewers. Brent and Brian wanted to form personal relationships with the farmer and the brewer. “This whole malt renaissance has re-connected brewers to the agriculture side of their business,” Brian says. “Until we came into play, brewers just made phone calls and the malt showed up at their door. They didn’t know where it came from. We are in a position now with craft beer that there are unique opportunities showing up all over the place, and we just have to be one of them. Getting good grain and getting our farmers into our program has been an interesting side to the business that we didn’t know anything about.
“Brent and I are just a couple generations off of a farm, and we had no idea how grain was going to show up at the malt house. In fact, if you go back and read our first business plan, none of that stuff was in there. It’s probably 30 percent of what Brent does between now and June.”
Part of the method to this madness is the commodity hamster wheel where, typically, farmers harvest grain, take it to a grain elevator, and receive a check onsite based on market price. The grain is then used for feed for cattle or hogs.
Brent and Brian pull the farmer out of this loop with their contracting model. They go straight to the farmers and negotiate a contract price at the time of planting in October.
Riverbend’s specs are tougher for the farmer to meet, but they always have the feed market as a fallback. At first the farmers thought they were crazy; what if the price they could receive at the grain elevator was more than they received from Riverbend? Brent and Brian continue to pull farmers out of this traditional loop and go directly to them with a price that makes sense to everyone.
Riverbend is using primarily barley, along with some wheat and rye. They do a lot of extra work to make sure the farmers have good seed to start with and good growing conditions. Sometimes they source the seed themselves, buying the seed, sending it to their grower, and making sure they have it onsite when it is time to plant. It’s a cost to Riverbend up front, but it does almost guarantee good barley.
The Riverbend grain currently comes from North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky. Their farmers find that the grain works well with crop rotation and brings nutrients back into the soil.
The grain that was planted in October is harvested the following June and arrives in “Super Sacks”—a huge white sack that holds 2,000 pounds of grain, which is now ready for the four step process of malting.
The four steps—steeping, germination, kilning, and cleaning—take place at the Riverbend Malt House on Pond Road, near the Western North Carolina Farmers Market in West Asheville. There is no other operation like Riverbend in the Southeast right now. The closest malt house is in Wisconsin, which puts many miles between the grower and the brewer. Most craft brewers were sourcing their malt from Canada, the Pacific Northwest, or Europe.
Riverbend’s customers are brewers throughout the Southeast, but generally in North Carolina. Their goal is a 400-mile radius for the barley and grain coming in and the grain going out, unless it is a special project.
Riverbend brings a unique flavor profile to their brewers. The malt is locally produced, regionally sourced, and offers the brewer an opportunity to reduce their footprint. The high quality of the malt gives them a chance to use a nice ingredient in the beer while also promoting the locally made malt in their marketing plan to sell more beer. The Riverbend Malt stamp is something that can go on a can or bottle or on a tap room chalkboard to let their customers know that the brewer is dialed into a community focus.
“You see the Riverbend stamp, you immediately now think it’s associated not just with regional or local, but it’s a high quality product. So this brewer is taking the time to hand-pick a grain that’s going to go into their beer and say a lot about the region,” Brian notes. “Most beers might mention a style of malt but not a malt house. It’s a win-win for both. We end up making more product for them, and they sell more beer.”
Protein levels in malt are important to brewers and impacted by the type of barley used in the malting process. It can be six-row barley or two-row barley. The most obvious difference between a head of two-row barley and a head of six-row barley is the arrangement of the kernels. Six-row grows in a spiral formation and is tightly packed. Two-row—just as the name implies—has only two rows of kernels, and has plenty of room to spread out. All the kernels are nice and plump and evenly distributed.
Riverbend uses a six-row barley, which is typically associated with high protein malt. Two-row has typically been associated with craft beer, while six-row has been associated with mass produced American lagers.
Brent told Brian that you couldn’t make malt in North Carolina because only six-row barley can be grown here. He was repeating what he had heard from craft brewers and every book he had read. The two went to North Carolina State University and met with David Marshall, a professor and USDA/ARS research leader. They asked him if he thought they could make malt from the barley grown in North Carolina. Marshall said you can make malt with anything. To that, Brian replied, “Let’s roll.”
The protein in the Riverbend six-row malt is right in line with the two-row British pale malts which are typically used as the crème de la crème of malt.
“That was one of the big educational mountains to climb with our brewers,” Brent says. “OK—all that stuff you learned in brewing school is based on thirty- and forty-year-old information. We now have new varieties that address a lot of those issues. Looking at our spec sheet, protein is low, diastatic power is manageable.” (The latter is a measure of how much starch-converting enzyme any given malt contains.)
“What they are discovering when they use our product—it’s the process that drives the flavor profile,” Brian says.
“That’s he secret here. It’s not the grain variety or the style, as much as it is the process that drives that style.”
“Specs get us in the door,” Brent says. “Flavor is what keeps them coming back.”
There is a recipe to what Brent and Brian are doing. It’s almost like craft brewing. They are just craft malting. They bring little nuances to the process that contribute to the flavor of their malt, and it’s similar to the brew process—combinations of grains and recipes, temperatures and times, all work together to create something that is different from the other guys.
There is a very artisan approach to what Riverbend does, and the process called for unique equipment and offered a challenge for Brian and Brent.
“When we started we didn’t know what kind of equipment we were going to have,” Brian says. “We had to build everything ourselves. We would draw it on a piece of paper and had someone fabricate it. We knew the science behind what we were trying to achieve.”
Brian designed the rake that is used in the germination process by looking at old text books on malting and adjusting the scale to the room size. The rake weighs about 40 pounds and offers the feeling of plowing through a field. Raking takes place even on the weekends. In a large malt house, this process would be done with a machine.
Brent and Brian love “playing off the old world/new world thing”: old world on the germination floor where they carefully rake the barley; new world on the kiln, where they can tap into and control the kiln via their smartphones, with an app they designed, along with their neighbor at Control Specialties. That’s important because all those times and temperatures were set manually in the past. Now, no more coming in at 3AM to control the settings. They even receive email notifications if there is a problem with the kiln settings.
STEP 2 – Germination The barley is transferred to the germination floor, where it’s now green malt that is starting to grow. Riverbend utilizes the traditional floor-malting method to control the germination rate. They control the bed depth of the barley and turn the grain with a rake, to dictate how much heat is kept in and released. The rake is pulled through the grain bed in two directions, three times a day. The germination process takes three to four days, depending on the type of malt being produced.
STEP 4 – Cleaning After kilning, the grain is transferred into a debearder to be polished—separating the rootlet material from the kernel. Riverbend then uses a refurbished, antique seed cleaner to isolate the plump kernels. This machine can process 3,000lbs per hour at maximum capacity. The grain then goes into the bagging hopper where it is packaged into 50lb bags or back into a Super Sack. The malt is then ready to be shipped out to brewers and distillers.
When coming up with a name for their business, Brent and Brian wanted something that reflected a new direction in craft malt.
“We wanted something that captured the idea of an agricultural connection and alluded to a paradigm shift,” Brent says. “That’s where Riverbend started to pop out for us.”
Riverbend was profitable in three years from the launch of the business. Some of that time was driven by an educational curve: Getting brewers to understand that six-row barley was more versatile and could be used in a wide variety of styles and applications, while working through supply chain issues. Brent and Brian had to figure out the best and most efficient way to buy the grain, store it, and move it from point A to point B. That took time—and money—to figure out.
What makes the partnership of friends Brent and Brian work so well? They have very unique personalities that blend well together. Brian describes himself as a wrench turner, while Brent describes himself as a phrase turner.
“Technically, I call myself the CEO and Brian is the COO,” Brent says. “I do a lot of bookkeeping, sales, interviews, agricultural side. Brian is in here constantly, thinking of ways we can do these steps better and more efficiently, and really keeping a tight eye on the product. Fixing equipment. It’s worked out great. You need that yin and yang when you are starting a business. He’s not interested in balancing the books or cutting paychecks, and I do not know how to fix motors. We laugh a lot—decompress through miniature stand-up comedy acts. Both of us have the same goals—goals for family and community.”
Brent advises those looking to start any type of new business in the area to avail themselves of all the resources that are here.
“We did Accelerating Appalachia; we did Mountain BizWorks,” he says. “Take advantage of all these resources that are at your disposal. They are here to help and it doesn’t cost you much money and is very beneficial. Don’t write a business plan that shows you making a profit your first year—especially if you’re in agricultural processing. Don’t try and go it alone. Have somebody to provide some balance and difference of opinion.”
It is important the way Western North Carolina and Asheville celebrate the entrepreneur, celebrate local focus, community involvement, and environmental sustainability.”
The creative culture of Asheville and the craft beer economy helped publicize what Riverbend was doing when they launched their business. Brent and Brian believe if they had started in a smaller city with one or two breweries, there would not have been enough synergy to drive things for them.
“It is important the way Western North Carolina and Asheville celebrate the entrepreneur, celebrate local focus, community involvement, and environmental sustainability,” Brent says. “We fit into all those groups, and that really helped us publicize what we are doing and get off on the right foot.”
Brent and Brian are founding members of the North American Craft Malting Guild. Craft malt is now an industry and they wanted to encourage that. The guild provides a central hub of information for those just starting out in the malting business.
Riverbend malted 40,000 pounds of grain their first year in business. This year they are on track to malt 470,000 pounds. Their biggest obstacle right now is production; they don’t have the ability in their current location to meet the demand for their product. They are looking to expand again, as they maxed out of their current facility in 16 months—they anticipated it would take three years.
“It really just took off,” Brent says. “It’s pretty scary sometimes. We were like, we’ll make this big move and we will slowly settle in and we’ll really get this thing pumping and have a year or two and all of this will work. No, it was like—bam—everything just popped, and within 16 months we were maxed out.”
Riverbend currently has three full-time employees with plans to bring on one or two part-time employees. By the middle of 2016, they plan to increase to 10 to 12 employees, as well as at least doubling their production capacity.
Their goals for the future include more living wage jobs, more connectivity to local farmers, interaction with the community, and continuing to work with nonprofits in town. They want to continue to educate others about the value of connecting the farmer to the craft brewery industry.
That sums up their “Malt with a Mission”—developing a relationship with the farmer and the brewer, creating artisan malts, and lessening the industry’s impact on the planet.
A triple bottom line approach of how they do business guides them each day. The belief is that if they do it right and do it long enough, the financial side of things will take care of itself. It’s not a drive to achieve material wealth. It’s about people, planet, and profit.
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