But what about the people behind the beer? Or perhaps, more accurately, the people behind the ingredients in the beer?
Meet Erik May. He’s one of those people. Erik owns Pilot Malt House, a not-even-year-old company based in Middleville, Michigan – which is south of Grand Rapids.
We had the opportunity to chat with Erik about his operation, how they fit in to craft beer’s “buy local” movement and the brewery and brewpub explosion happening in western Michigan.
GuysDrinkingBeer: First off, Erik, can you give us a crash course on what exactly a malt house is and how one goes about making malt?
Erik May: A malt house is a facility and operation that produces malt specifically for craft breweries, craft distilleries, and home brewers.
Malting is an age-old process, done and perfected for thousands of years and is still a labor-intensive labor of love. We are firm believers that, like anything else, the best end product comes from the highest quality raw ingredients. Malt comes from barley (and to a lesser extent, rye and wheat) and is a process that gets the grain to germinate (makes it think it’s growing) which develops the enzyme and starch infrastructure to support the use as a base for all beer, as well as a number of craft spirits.
GDB: Your website notes that you are an “artisanal” malt house. How is your process different from what may be done on a larger, more industrial scale?
Erik: In our view, making malt is an art – one that requires care, time, effort, etc. As we believe each batch is our opportunity to show the world what high-quality, hand-crafted malt is all about.
We liken our operation to the analogy of what American-made Light ‘Beer’ is to craft breweries, industrial-sized malt operations are to craft maltsters like us. Our focus when we are producing malt is 100% on the quality of the end product – anything else is trivial. We believe we manufacture a superior product just like any of the craft breweries believe they make a better product than MillerCoors or Anheuser-Busch/InBev.
Despite our small size, we also believe strongly that our value proposition comes in our ability to tactically respond to exactly what our brewers want and need. Brewers, by their very nature are creative folks that look to push the envelope – we believe we can act as collaborators to make their next ‘dream beer’ come true. The collaboration between us and our breweries is second to none, we believe our product line-up is a baseline to use as we go forward, but we will work with the brewers to forge new varieties and new tastes to ensure we get them exactly what they want.
GDB: Now that we know what you do, how did Pilot Malt House come about?
Erik: Pilot Malt House was born in the summer of 2012 over a few home brews. My longtime friend, Paul Schelhaas is an avid home brewer and as we were drinking a few we got into a discussion on where the ingredients for beer come from. There’s been a significant growth in the state of Michigan when it comes to hops farms popping up, but little in the way of movement towards the creation of a malting industry. It was literally that simple – two buddies talking over some beers, realizing a need in the marketplace, and charging forward from there.
The traditional way that towns were set up in the 18th and 19th centuries was that there was a church, some sort of market (where farmers would offer their fruits/vegetables), and a brewery/pub with farms nearby supporting them – Prohibition then happened and the beer making industry went away. Soon after Prohibition was lifted in the early 1930′s, breweries started popping up – but it wasn’t until the 1990′s (Bell’s) and 2000′s (Founders, New Holland, etc.) that breweries started to enter back into communities. We hope to serve as that vital conduit between farms and breweries, just like it used to be – where brewers know who grows their grains and vice versa.
GDB: Do you only provide malt for breweries in Michigan or do you work with any other breweries in the Midwest? Any in Illinois?
Erik: We are obviously fans of the Michigan craft beer scene, but we also love the great city of Chicago and all of Illinois. Finch’s Secret Stache Stout is routinely in my rotation. We have had some preliminary discussions with several breweries in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Cleveland.
Obviously we are a strong believer in the ‘Buy Local’ movement and we hope to have a network of growers from around the Midwest and intend on having the names and contact info on our 50 lbs sacks we distribute so our brewery customers can engage with the growers directly, hopefully planting the seed on long-term relationships between growers, brewers, and maltsters (like it used to be in the 18th & 19th centuries).
GDB: We, as drinkers, like to drink local when we can. We’re fortunate enough in Chicago to have a number of neighborhood breweries whose beers we can find on tap down the street. Are you finding, on your end of the business, that there is an interest among brewers to get locally sourced ingredients?
Erik: I have been fascinated by the craft beer industry in a number of ways. Not the least of which was certainly my recognition of the movement to buy local and how it’s really taking hold throughout the Midwest, both within the beer industry and in just the general food & drink industry. Breweries are extremely interested in buying local and in my case (over here in Western Michigan) they simply are not able to source their grains locally. We have a brewery over here that their mission statement is ‘Belgian Tradition. Local Mission.’ [Ed. Note: referring to Brewery Vivant] but they are not able to source locally. We hope to team with local hops growers to literally give breweries the ability to make 100% local beers.
GDB: Michigan seems to be a happening place for brewing ingredients (note I didn’t say hoppening); there are a few hop farms in operation as well as your malt house. What is it about the Mitten state that seems to make so beer friendly?
Erik: Michigan is an awesome place (totally biased opinion) and has done a great job of ‘picking itself up of the mat’ following generations depending on automotive manufacturing. For most of my life when most people think of Michigan they specifically think of Detroit and it ultimately ends up being a ‘bashfest’ on the Detroit area (blight, crime, etc.). Michigan obviously has a lot more to offer than just the Detroit area and we, as a state, have done a great job in reinventing ourselves and injecting Michigan into conversations nationwide regarding craft beer, health care, etc.
I also really think that Bell’s down in the Kalamazoo area has a ton to do with making our state ‘beer friendly.’ I am no expert but I just think that they have been one of our nation’s largest craft breweries since the 1990′s which is awesome in itself, but it also shows that there’s a lot of people around my age (I am 31 years old) and younger that don’t ever remember there not being a craft beer option at the local party store or grocery store. My generation has grown up with craft beer being in front of me so we’re not intimated by different styles, different varieties, etc.
One other thing that I feel really strongly about in regards to why craft beer has been so successful in our state is the accessibility and uniqueness of both the product and the producer. Each of the beers have a story (see Keewenaw Brewing’s Widow Maker Ale or Founders Furniture City Stock Ale), just like each of the beer drinkers (in this case, me). This allows me to identify with what I drink and ultimately helps me to identify with those who busted their butts to make it for me to taste. You don’t get that story nor that connection if you pick up one of the mass-produce ‘beers.’
GDB: Let’s talk, specifically, about your end of the state – the Grand Rapids area. There seems to be a brewery and brewpub explosion there. Can you describe the beer culture in West Michigan? And has the influx of new brewers been good for business?
Erik: Like I mentioned previously, I have been fascinated with a number of aspects of the Michigan craft beer industry since we began developing our company.
As a little background, I am a 10 year military veteran turned small business owner and maltster. I have never been around an industry or a group of individuals that work so well in a collaborative environment. The breweries themselves don’t see one another as competition (or if they do, they chalk it up to ‘friendly competition’) and they view converting someone from drinking one of the American Light ‘Beers’ to a craft brew as a win for the whole craft brewing community regardless of which craft brew that individual had. There aren’t many industries that can say the same thing, usually competition will not allow the sharing of information and friendships like there is in the fairly tight-knit craft beer industry. Even if the competition is friendly, it still drives breweries to constantly innovate and improve their product line-ups.
The seemingly constant influx of new brewers has been awesome to see. The Michigan Brewers Guild has done a great job in my estimation at setting a course for the Michigan craft beer community. That said, even with all of the breweries (both young and old), craft beer is still only around 6% of the Michigan beer market. I’ve been asked by folks if I think we are (or could be) reaching market saturation with craft breweries, but I point to the 6% stat as evidence that we may have not even scratched the surface of what this state and this country is capable of.
GDB: Even though we live in Illinois, Karl and I pride ourselves on having a fairly decent working knowledge of all the great brewery related happenings in Michigan, but we’re finding it hard to keep up. Are there any breweries that are opening in 2013 in Michigan that you’re most excited about?
Erik: In all honesty, I don’t tend to get a whole lot more excited over the opening of one more than any of the others – when a new one opens we all win. That said, the city of Muskegon has long been another area of our state that has been at the brunt of many jokes. It’s a beautiful lakeshore community with so much to offer and by the end of 2013 they’ll have 2 new breweries calling Muskegon home (Unruly Brewing and Pigeon Hill Brewing).
A number of years ago this would’ve been almost unfathomable. But, thanks to the grit and determination of some hard-working, ‘outside the box’ thinking, craft beer loving folks, Muskegon will be home to not one, but two breweries. This is innovation right before our eyes and is getting back to the roots of our ancestors where each town had a church, a market, and a brewery and all of the farmers around the outskirts of town supported one another.
Pilot Malt House