BISMARCK, N.D. - Sometime around 2014, John and Donovan John Stober were sitting at the table, discussing ways to add value to their crops.
The Stobers have farmed near Goodrich in central North Dakota since the land was homesteaded in the early 1900s. John is the fourth generation on the place, and Donovan, his son, is the fifth. The family had a previous value-added venture, Flax USA, and they felt the best way to keep their farm alive to a sixth generation was to find another idea.
Donovan came up with the idea of malting barley, John says. John's other son, Jared, had previous marketing experience with Flax USA and was interested in being involved, too.
When the Stober family started investigating malting, they learned many malting companies could only guarantee brewers that their malt was coming from North America. So, when a brewer wanted to make an all-North Dakota beer, there was no way to ensure that was happening.
Jared new serves as CEO of Two Track Malting, with Donovan as CFO. Since 2015, Two Track Malting has been providing "field to pint" traceability, giving brewers information on where their malt originated down to "those little roads that get developed during the harvest process."
"That's the traceability. So, we can identify that exact field even down to those two-track trails that are made during harvest time," Jared says.
Mike Frohlich, head brewer and co-owner of Laughing Sun Brewery in Bismarck, was Two Track Malting's first customer. In the past four years, his company has gone to using mostly Two Track products in its beer, other than a few specialty malts sourced from elsewhere in the region. Using local products is important to Frohlich, who says his business seeks to support local farmers as much as they support the local artists whose work hangs on the wall.
"To me, it's huge. That's where local craft brew is from and that's the reason there are the beer styles there are," he says.
The paint for the artists
"Not everybody is going to the store and getting the Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite. There's a lot more options and a lot more variety," Jared says.
Local craft malting, however, isn't as common. The Craft Malting Guild lists fewer than 60 craft malting houses in the U.S. and Canada. Two Track Malting is the only one in North Dakota. Minnesota has one, Maltwerks Inc., and Montana has two, Gallatin Valley Malt Co. and Western Feedstock Technologies. South Dakota has none. John says Two Track, while one of the few small malt houses in the region, still competes with the "huge malting plants."
North Dakota State University Plant Science professor Paul Schwartz explained at the Carrington Research Extension Center field day on July 16 that craft brewing has a 13% market share in the beer industry but uses 40% of the malt. With so many craft brewers on the scene, they don't yet have a big impact on varieties. Instead, they're somewhat pulled along by what the big malt companies do, including moving toward two-row varieties.
"We're more international, and the rest of the world has always used two-row," Schwartz said.
Two Track Malting, Jared says, uses all two-row barley: "Brewers wanted that."
With so many similarities among products, using a malt with an identifiable source is a way for a brewery to set itself apart, Jared says. Two Track Malting ships to 24 states, including New Jersey, Florida, Arizona and California.
"That's one of the things that really surprised," Jared says. "We thought, hey we'll just be focusing on brewers in our immediate region. Well, it turns out there are so many brewers who are outside looking for that traceability aspect, which is one of the things that kind of helps set them apart."
Most craft malters offer small batches of 1 or 2 tons per batch. Two Track had special equipment made to start out around 10 tons per batch, making it one of the larger craft malters in the country off the bat. The company is up to nearly 15 tons per batch now. However, Jared explains that 15 tons per batch is still far below the production capability of large commercial malters.
Malting, Jared says, doesn't sound as exciting as brewing. Malt is not the final product, just an ingredient in beer.
"We don't get the fun factor," he says. "We give brewers the paint so they can create their masterpieces."
"We get better flavors now with their malt than we ever did with some of our previous malt that we used," he said. "Our beer has gotten better. Our flavors have gotten better because of that."
Jared says that quality starts with the grains - barley, wheat and rye - grown by North Dakota farmers.
"When you start with high quality barley, you end up with high quality malt," he says.
'We know the field it's coming from'
The Stobers raise mostly barley and soybeans, adding a little flax and corn from time to time. Just as John and Donovan hoped, the value-added product has helped make their farm more viable.
"It adds some stability to our marketing," John says.
While much of the grain for Two Track Malting comes from the Stobers, the company also sources some from other farmers in the state.
Greg Kessel's Arrow K Farm near Belfield, N.D., partnered with Two Track Malting after considering starting his own malting operation. Kessel has developed a white wheat variety which is used exclusively by Two Track Malting. Jared says the malt made with the wheat now is one of Two Track's most popular products.
Kessel says his farm can talk about the sustainability of its operation when selling brewers on the Two Track malt, explaining how they're no-till with an extensive crop rotation program.
"The big guys have a struggle doing that," he says.
Providing another market for farmers was part of the plan for Two Track Malting from the beginning.
"We didn't want to grow everything. We wanted to work with other farmers in the area so we could help them out, and they're not just another number for the big, commercial maltsters," Jared says.
"When the customer gets that beer poured for them, they get served on a coaster. They can scan that code, see the field, see the farmer. It also explains the malting process because so many people really don't know what malt is," Jared says. "A lot of people still ask us how our hops business is doing, because people think it's water and hops make beer. But malt in general is your biggest ingredient outside of water in every brew that's made. It gives you the backbone, kind of the soul of beer, so to speak."
On the Stober place, the sixth generation is now 2 and 6 years old, "and they love tractors," John says. While it remains to be seen whether they'll take on farming, the family believes Two Track Malting and its niche traceability might give them the option.
"It would be nice to be able to present the sixth generation with the opportunity," he says.