There’s a field on the Stober farm near Goodrich known to the family as Okefenokee, named for a slough in the field that mimics the swamp lands in Florida.
In less than a month, the barley harvested from that field will be malted in Bismarck by a group of local beer lovers — Jared Stober, Donovan Stober and Chris Fries — who want to put a face to the barley it takes to make the beverage. They are starting the area’s first craft malting company, Two Track Malting.
Jared Stober said they’ve had no contracts yet as most brewers want to have the finished product to test first. They will start production in less than a month. Some local craft brewers are showing an interest, and one Minnesota brewer called to ask when they could get malt, which Jared Stober is taking as a good sign.
The trio will showcase their product at the Philadelphia craft brewers conference in May, hopeful demand from that show will eat up their production capacity.
The company will make malt in 10-ton batches. Jared Stober said 20-ton batches of barley make 2 million pounds of malt annually, so they will be making 1 million pounds annually to start. To put that into perspective, in a five-state radius, there are 312 craft breweries. Jared Stober estimates each will use 25,000 pounds annually on the light side — 100,000 pounds is more likely. That’s 7 million pounds of malt.
“We’re scratching the surface,” he said.
The partners had considered starting a brewery.
“But since there’s 4,000 of them (nationwide) … All of them need malt,” Jared Stober said.
The craft brewing industry is growing at a rate of 12 percent to 15 percent per year, according to the Brewers Association, and has not reached a plateau.
“Why compete when you can supply?” Fries said.
They landed on malting barley, looking for a way to add value to products grown on the family farm.
“It’s a grain we grow a lot of in North Dakota,” Donovan Stober said.
In fact, 67.2 million bushels were produced here in 2015, making North Dakota the top barley producer in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
About 90 percent of the production in 2015, slightly more than 60 million bushels, is malting barley; the other 10 percent is livestock feed, said Steve Edwardson, executive administrator of the North Dakota Barley Council. And most of that barley goes to large commercial malters, such as Cargill’s plant in Spiritwood, where Jared Stober says they malt more barley than he and his partners could ever dream of making.
But Two Track has a different advantage.
“Craft brewers are looking for something that has that unique factor,” Jared Stober said.
The story, like the one about Okefenokee on the Stober farm, is what’s different. The big brewers don’t have that.
“Traceability is a big thing,” Jared Stober said.
Two Track is able to trace the barley to the field in which it was grown on the Stober family farm, where malt barley has been grown for generations. Customers can visit the farm and ride with Donovan Stober in the combine.
The name of the company traces back to the two-track roads the farmers use to get to their fields.
“It’s where you spend your time,” Jared Stober said. “It’s your own story; it means a lot of different things to different people.”
Craft malting is an emerging industry, Jared Stober said.
“There’s not a lot of craft maltsters out there. A lot of them are doing it on a smaller scale working with local brewers,” he said. “As we started to dig into it, we were finding out the malt part of the brewing process is kind of the next hops. People are starting to recognize malt makes a difference and creates flavor.”
Jared Stober said malting went commercial, much like brewing, but now, following the craft brewing trend, there is a shift back to the local touch craft malting allows.
“As an industry, it’s going to be fun to see where it goes; it’s just starting to take off,” he said. “We see this growing quite rapidly.”
Home-brewed beer is how Fries got into the venture. Growing his own hops, he started doing research on how to further flavor beers. He wanted a way to create beers that were 100 percent North Dakota products. So he started experimenting with malting in his kitchen, taking over the oven for a day or two at a time.
“My wife is very happy I’m out of the kitchen,” he said.
Fries said another advantage to craft malting is customizable malt. He said he is able to manipulate the product in different ways — just enough so the brewer can say, “This is a malt that’s mine, that I helped create.”
“They’re going to get flavors that they want,” Fries said. “It’s interesting; you can take a grain and you can make a chocolate flavor out of it or you can make it come out with a burnt toasty flavor. You could have it come out with a honey flavor. That transition is actually quite amazing .… To me, it’s just as enjoyable as drinking the finished product.”
Craft malting also provides an additional market outlet for local farmers, said Edwardson.
Wisconsin is famous for its cheese; Idaho for its potatoes.
“But North Dakota doesn’t really have a product it’s known for,” Donovan Stober said. “I really think barley can be that product …. We really do grow some of the world’s best barley.”
Two Track will start distributing their product locally but plan to send it nationwide and maybe even export it. The company is hopeful its product will put North Dakota on the map in the craft brewing industry.
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