Though most of us are very familiar with the resurgence of craft brewing in the city of Saline over the past several years, many might not know that a small company creating one of the primary components of beer quietly opened its doors in the city near the end of last year.
Sitting at the west end of Saline among the row of businesses behind Mickey’s Dairy Twist is Macon Creek Malt House, a company dedicated to sourcing and malting grains grown in the State of Michigan.
According to their website, “at Macon Creek, our mission is to bring craft malting back home to Michigan, connecting small farmers to small brewers with a malt less traveled for a truly local experience.”
Megan Goldenberg owns and operates the business alongside husband Zach. She has a master’s degree in agriculture and natural resource economics, and it was at a related academic event that the idea for a craft malting business first dawned on them.
“I was nine months pregnant at the Great Lakes Hops and Barley Conference,” she said. “That was in Grand Rapids."
Zach did not want her to go alone given the late term of her pregnancy.
“He took three days off of work to go with me. He’s got a background in mechanical and electrical engineering and maintenance, equipment maintenance and design, and so as we were leaving that conference he was talking about designing and building the (malting) equipment,” she said. “At the time there were no craft malt equipment manufacturers, and so it was really like a shoestring industry.”
Just figuring out how to get going was difficult at first, Goldenberg said.
“Every time we talked to somebody we had to try and describe to them what we were trying to do,” she said. “There are smaller scale equipment manufacturers in Germany, but those system were like a quarter of a million (dollars) and a 12-month waiting list. The startup costs were enormous.”
Given that, Zach simply put his nose to the grindstone and came up with his own malting creations.
“Zach probably spent four to six months designing equipment and then started building in our garage,” Goldenberg said. “Maybe a couple months after that we rented this facility and moved in.”
The building they found in Saline was not zoned for food production, so city council had to approve the exemption. Once everything was ready to go, Goldenberg said she and her husband set about adapting and retrofitting the space into a complete, commercial food production facility.
“We feel really, really lucky we were able to get this building in Saline, in this location, with these landlords and it’s two miles from our house,” she said.
For now, Goldenberg said they have found their comfort zone in terms of how much grain they are able to malt at a time.
“We malt in batches of 600 to 700 pounds,” she said. “We have some water loss in the process, so essentially we start at 700 pounds and have about a 20 percent shrink. We can start a new batch every other day, so we can produce about a ton a week.”
The Goldenberg’s longer-term goal is to up those production numbers.
“We hope to expand in the next year or two to a one-ton system. So, we would be producing two to three tons per week,” she said.
For the most part, Goldenberg said they malt barley.
“Eighty percent of our grains are barley and 80 percent of our sales are malted barley to brewers. The rest is corn, rye, wheat, oats, to distillers, to brewers, to bakeries,” she said, indicating they are just starting to package for retail sale. “Argus (Farm Stop) and McPherson Local are carrying some. I was just talking with Argus this morning about doing cereal.”
Barley is not the easiest grain to grow in this area, however. It does not like humidity, Goldenberg said, and the soil composition isn’t ideal.
“So, the majority of the grain that we push through is coming off of two farms in the thumb area that has better growing conditions,” she said. “Southeastern Michigan is a microclimate. This area of Washtenaw County particularly is also a clay bed and so barley would prefer a much better draining soil than what we have here.”
Since barley is a high risk, high reward crop, Goldenberg said she is part of an ongoing study here in Saline to understand a bit more about how various barley varieties grow and what aspects of the cultivation process ultimately impact how they taste.
“We do have a 17-acre winter barley field trial in Saline just a couple miles down the road at the Luckhardt’s farm and it is part research trial, part production trial. The funder is the Washtenaw County Office of Economic Development and MSU is our research partner on it,” she said, citing the fiscal agent as Fermenta, a women’s craft collective. “It’s four or five varieties of winter barley and it’s really a unique situation. It’s one of the only known trials that anyone we’re working with knows about where we’re putting level, production-sized variety trials in side-by-side in the same field and they’re being treated the same way.”
If different growing conditions afford barley a distinct terroir, as observed in regional wines, this study might help parse that out.
“Hartwick College Center for Craft Food and Beverage will micro-malt all those varieties and then we’ll macro-malt all those varieties to the same recipe and then pass them off to brewers to do the same recipe, and so we’ll have information from every step of the way for these different varieties,” she said.
MSU will host their Malting Barley Field Day Series at the Lukhardt’s farm, 5125 Braun Rd. on June 19 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. More information can be found at http://msue.anr.msu.edu/events/msu_malting_barley_field_day_series.
Salt Springs Brewery is currently serving Macon Creek Mai Bock and Vienne Lager, each made with Macon Creek malt.
Macon Creek Malt House is located at 781 W. Michigan Ave.