JE Paino, owner of Ruhstaller Beer, sat down with me at the brewery’s farm to talk about the future of small grains and craft beer. Ruhstaller is known for sourcing as locally as possible by growing their own hops and getting malted barley from a Klamath-based farm. So why not use more local grains? It’s because they’re not malted.
California has no large-scale maltsters, so the farm he works with sends their grains to Vancouver, Washington for malting. The malt comes out to 55 cents a pound, which is 10 times more expensive than what your typical brewery is paying! The small maltsters cropping up charge $2.50-3/lb, which makes sense for them but hasn’t to customers.
Customers want, as JE explained, consistency. Unlike wine, people want their beer to taste the same. So bringing in a specialty grain malt isn’t appealing to the point of willingness to pay for the difference. This goes back to the craft’s lineage. Beer comes from England and Germany where consistency, predictability, and homogeneity are preferred, even valued. Brewers are judged by their ability to replicate the same outcome over and over again. Wine, however, comes from France where variety, terroir, and difference are esteemed. That’s JE’s hypothesis, and I can see that.
He also pointed out that grocers categorize food ingredients by where they’re from. Cheese from Switzerland, wine from Chile, apples from California. But beer’s location is associated with the factory’s location. Therefore, touting grain origins in beer hasn’t been very compelling.
At the end of the meeting, I understood why we small farms won’t be providing all the beer grain for California any time soon. It was, however, beneficial to know the reality of the situation, to see the beautiful and ecologically-managed hop farm, and to gain Ruhstaller’s presence at the California Cooperatives Conference social. That’s right! They’ll be serving up their brews for the conference I’m helping host on April 29th. Meet some grain farmers and drink some grains!