A stone’s throw from Wyoming’s eastern border is a bright red, low-slung warehouse amid acres of rustling grain. The mid-July sun glinted off giant granary bins standing in two orderly rows.
Inside the spacious, sparse building a kiln the size of a pickup truck rumbled to life. The hot, dry air inside suspended the barley in the middle of germination and dried it for storage. The barley spent the last week being cleaned, steeped in water and germinated using cool, humid air. The resulting malts are used in beer and distilled spirits.
This was the first test batch for Pine Bluffs-based Wyoming Malting Company, the state’s first malt manufacturer.
Wyoming is the fifth-largest barley producer in the nation.
Like many Wyoming raw resources, the grain is shipped to other states and countries where it is processed into new products, sold to retailers at a markup and, finally, bought by consumers for even more money.
Each link in that chain is revenue Wyoming companies are leaving on the table. Even worse, Wyoming customers often end up buying back the end product from an out-of-state manufacturer.
Chad Brown wants to keep the money in Wyoming.
Brown smiled beneath his long, bushy black beard. He was awake until the early morning hours coaxing his first batch through the new system. Despite the sleepless night, he was elated.
“The malting process is a value-added process for agricultural products,” Brown explained. “This area grows lots of barley, millet and wheat. Our business will help those farmers by giving them somewhere to sell. Then we can provide that product to brewers and distillers around the state.”
Wyoming Malting is the missing link in the chain that will lead to Wyoming barley being made into Wyoming beers and distilled spirits while keeping the revenue with local companies all along the way.
A growing industry
Drinkers can count on one hand the number of companies that dominate each of the beer, distilling and malting industries. It’s only since the early-2000s that craft breweries gained a foothold in the market. The craft distilling and malting industries are only in their infancy. For example, just a half dozen malters dot the Mountain West region.
However, each of these industries is growing fast, particularly in Wyoming. The state’s two dozen or so breweries have mostly sprouted in the last decade, and more are on the way. Many of Wyoming’s distillers opened in just the last few years.
Small as the industry is, there is more supply and demand than Brown can hope to meet. He anticipates malting 18,000 pounds of grains per week when the company is up to full production. That’s 24,000 bushels a year, which is just a drop in the bucket of the 7.9 million bushels of barley produced annually in Wyoming. And Brown’s production can only match about one-third of Wyoming’s craft market.
“That doesn’t even count Colorado, so we’re in a great place to grow as a company,” Brown said.
The 20,000 square-foot facility was built with expansion in mind. Wyoming Malting can triple its production without adding on to the building.
The Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency, supported the project with a $3.4 million grant and loan package to Laramie County. The county used that money to construct the facility on a 10-acre parcel north of Pine Bluffs owned by Cheyenne LEADS, the local economic development organization.
Wyoming Malting is leasing the facility from Cheyenne LEADS. The project is expected to return $4.5 million to local and state coffers during the next 20 years.
“We’re extremely grateful that the Business Council has a program available that can take great business ideas and find them a home,” Brown said.
That new home is chockfull of Pine Bluffs pride.
The metal chairs were manufactured by Pine Bluffs-based Allwayz Manufacturing. The tin decorating the walls came from a local granary. The tables are old wire spools repurposed from High West Energy, and a long table in the back is from an old bowling alley that used to live in the Outlaw Saloon in nearby Cheyenne.
“Every time we go to Taco Tuesday at the Knotty Pine Saloon, people keep asking when we’re going to open. Bill, the manager at the grocery store, wants to know if we’re malting yet,” Brown said. “Everyone is seriously excited to have another manufacturer in Pine Bluffs. This is going to be another outlet of work for the community.”
The town also hopes the allure of a local distillery helps pull drivers off Interstate 80 and into town. A tour of the malting facility might convince those same travelers to try a beer or spirit elsewhere in Wyoming made with those malts.
A boon to brewers and distillers
Chas Marsh plans to be one of the first distillers to provide Wyoming malted grains in his Jackson Hole Still Works whiskey.
“We’ve got a great relationship with those guys and, in fact, we signed a contract a couple years ago with them to get part of their very first batch. We want to do the first single malt with 100 percent Wyoming farmed and malted grains,” said Marsh, co-owner of Still Works. “Using local ingredients is a big deal to us, because it’s a big deal to our customers.”
Consumers are increasingly in search of locally-crafted products, Marsh explained. Those consumers want to know where their drinks and food are coming from and how they were sourced.
Wyoming distillers’ confidence in the industry’s growing market is palpable. A recent Business Council study revealed 83 percent of Wyoming distillers anticipate expanding their operations by 2020. In all, these companies plan to invest an additional $6.3 million to expand into 33,000 square-feet of new space and create 40 new jobs.
The future for the state’s brewing industry is also promising. Figures from the Brewers Association, a national consortium of small and independent craft brewers, show the number of Wyoming microbreweries has doubled in the last six years and now boasts nearly 5.5 breweries per capita, good for eighth in the nation.
The industry contributes $150 million to state coffers annually – 11th in the country.
The addition of a malter to Wyoming craft drinks will only bolster both sectors, according to Wyoming Craft Brewers Guild President Tim Barnes, of Blacktooth Brewing Company.
“I think any time you can get local products within the state’s boundaries, you are benefiting both your product and the customer’s experience,” Barnes said. “For example, we chose to can instead of bottle so we could get our containers from Worland. Any time you can get materials from a Wyoming company, it benefits everybody.”
The major malt suppliers require brewers and distillers to pay for huge orders to receive the same basic product everyone else in the industry receives. Those basic ingredients can be transformed into a variety of styles and flavors, but the small, customizable batch approach used by Wyoming Malting means crafters will have access to a distinct ingredient tailored to their specifications.
“There is limited access to specialty malting on a small- to mid-sized scale, so I think this is a heck of an opportunity for Chad and Wyoming Malting,” Marsh said. “Once people recognize Wyoming Malting Company can get very specific with each distillery’s grains, that’s going to draw, I think, people in from national markets to seek their grains. They can do small runs with specific grain profiles, and that’s going to provide a uniqueness compared to other products.”
About the Wyoming Business Council: Our mission is to increase Wyoming’s prosperity. We envision a Wyoming where industries are strong, diverse and expanding. Small business is a big deal. Communities have the highest quality of life. Wyoming is the technology center of the High Plains. Wyoming knows no boundaries. Please go to www.wyomingbusiness.org for more information.