Seattleites think they know a lot about beer. We can tell the fruity aroma of Citra hops from the piney pop of Simcoe. We know the yeasty difference between a spicy Belgian pale ale and a crisp German lager. But what about barley? Can we tell barley varietals apart like we can hops?
I recently went to Skagit Valley Malting, where CEO Dave Green placed three small glasses of beer in front of me, each made with a different variety of locally grown barley.
The beers were strikingly different, but it was like they were speaking a language I had never heard before. I was tasting the terroir of local barley, something that is incredibly rare to find in beer.
Local breweries buy their grains from either massive North American corporate malting companies or European specialty maltsters. That makes it effectively impossible to brew beer with locally grown grains. Unless, of course, the brewer is in business with Skagit Valley Malting.
The Burlington-based company is connecting Seattle's brewers with local and specialty grains in ways that were not possible before the industrial-scale malting facility launched two years ago.
"A brewery that shows up here to buy from us is only one handshake away from the grower. We can almost walk to them. They are within a 10-mile radius of our plant," Green said. "So it is really the first opportunity for most brewers to connect directly with the grower and see how it works and understand their story and their farm."
Not since Redhook Brewery opened Seattle's first modern craft brewery in 1981 has one business had the opportunity to make such a fundamental impact on Seattle's craft brewing culture. And this time around, it's not a brewery in Ballard but a malting house 60 miles north of the city.
Fremont Brewing has made about two dozen beers with Skagit Valley malts, and Holy Mountain has used the maltster for eight different beers. Fremont Brewing, Pike Brewing, and Holy Mountain are good places to try to find your own Skagit Valley–sourced beers—keep your eye on those tap lists around town and eventually you'll come across one. If you're willing to drive north a ways, Farmstrong Brewing in Mount Vernon and Aslan Brewing in Bellingham are even more likely to have the beers on hand.
Matt Lincecum, Fremont Brewing's founder, said the specialty malts offer "a range of expression and flavors not seen in American beer for generations." Colin Lenfesty, Holy Mountain's cofounder, said, "Skagit malt definitely has a rich and distinct character."
It's not just brewers in Seattle that are taking note of what Skagit Valley is up to. The James Beard Awards, the country's most prestigious food awards, have honored the company with semifinalist nods three years in a row. Though Green was a semifinalist for this year's award, he didn't make it into the finals, which he said was somewhat of a relief: "Now I don't need to take time off to go out to New York and deal with that."
Skagit Valley Malting is rapidly expanding its production capacity, but the company still makes a small fraction of the malts in Washington's beers. Green wants to change that and make sure your next beer is full of Skagit Valley character. I hope it is, too.