MAPLETON, Maine — Among Aroostook County farmers trying to diversify and enter new markets, Joshua and Jacob Buck decided to focus on a crop they already were growing.
Joshua and Jacob Buck, two of four brothers, have spent the past few years thinking about potential crops to grow beyond potatoes and grains, leading an effort to diversify the third-generation Buck Farms under the guidance of their father and two uncles. Initially, their interest in craft beer drew them to hops, the flowers used for bitterness in beer brewing.
The hops have grown well, but the brothers had another idea last year when they were trying to sell them to the Sea Dog Brewing Company in Bangor.
“They had malted barley sitting by the door,” Jacob Buck, a recent University of Maine engineering graduate said. “I thought, ‘Hey, we grow barley.’ By the time we left there, we were looking at how to malt barley.”
In February, they founded the Maine Malt House, narrowly beating the Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon Falls in being the state’s first modern malt house and entering the competitive malt market dominated by multinational corporations.
Many New England farms have long grown barley and other grains, but beer breweries large and small tend to rely on malted barley, the source of the sugars fermented into beer, sold by large companies such as Cargill. Grain farmers traditionally have sold to big firms for malting instead of try to process the grain themselves.
But the Buck brothers in Mapleton, as well as startup malt houses in places such as Massachusetts and North Carolina, are betting they can create a business in the “field to glass” movement, the marriage of the local food and craft beer economies.
“We’re too far into it now. We’re a craft malt company,” Joshua Buck said.
Not long after the epiphany at Sea Dog, Buck attended a malt academy in Winnipeg, Ontario, to learn “the biochemistry of barley” and the whole malting process, where the grains are steeped in water, germinated and then dried to preserve enzymes that help starches turn into sugars and eventually alcohol.
Afterward, the brothers sent an introductory letter and survey to every brewery in Maine — 41 at the time — and heard back from about half.
“We got a lot of feedback saying ‘Quality is where it’s at,’” Buck said.
After they made their first batch in February and got it tested in Canada, they loaded up their truck with the malt and visited breweries across Maine to pitch their product.
The Liberal Cup in Hallowell was the first to brew with the Buck brothers’ malts, in its Drummer’s Lane Brown Ale. This past summer, their malts were featured in beers at the Maine Brewer’s Fest, including Marshall Wharf Brewing’s 7 percent alcohol by volume Little Toot Small Pale Ale.
At least a dozen breweries have used Maine Malt House ingredients, among them Gritty’s, Allagash and Geaghan’s, who along with others will be pouring their beverages Oct. 17 at the Aroostook County Brew Festival in Mars Hill. Central Street Farmhouse in Bangor also sells the brothers’ malts to homebrewers.
Their first major customer, Square Tail Brewing Company in Amherst, along Route 9 east of Bangor, now sources 100 percent of its base malts from the Maine Malt House, not including specialities such as malted rye, and about 85 percent in total.
“When we made the swap, we had to rework some of our recipes,” Square Tail’s head brewer Wes Ellington said. “We were using a British malt, Maris Otter, primarily as our base, which has a more distinct, bready and robust profile.”
Ellington and the brewers had to “play around” with some of the Maine Malt House’s two-row barley blends, “but we have gotten it nailed down pretty well,” he said.
“We have a philosophy to keep our ingredients as local as possible,” Ellington said. “In the past this has been difficult due to the fact that there weren’t that many options. But as the brewing industry grows, so goes the agri-industry in Maine.”
Plying a trade for a local economy
When the Bucks were growing up, their mother told them they had to get some kind of higher education.
Joshua Buck, who trained in construction at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, planned much of the malt house, a renovated former potato storage facility along Route 163. Jared Buck, who studied computer-aided drafting at NMCC, designed the grain cleaning-system, managed the fabrication and also focuses on planting and harvesting the grains.
He’s kind of “behind the scenes,” Jacob Buck said.
Buck and his twin, Caleb Buck, both earned engineering degrees from the University of Maine. Caleb Buck, a mechanical engineer, helped the family get the malt house off the ground before heading off to work for Boeing in Washington State. Jacob Buck uses his degree in electrical engineering to operate a programmable logic controller to run various parts of the seven day malting process.
“We’ve tried to automate as much as we can,” Buck said.
Space that formerly stored potatoes 20 feet high now houses an elaborate pipe system that cleans and screens the barley kernels into an exact size — 6/64th of an inch.
In a malt room, 2 tons of grain are steeped and dried three times over 48 hours, through a programmed system. Then the grain is spread on the floor 4 or 5 inches thick to germinate over four days — a step that requires someone to rake the grains every four to eight hours. (“We could automate that,” Buck said.) The malting process ends with the barley being dried inside large bins in a kiln built by Josh Buck.
So far, the brothers have made 20 2-ton batches of malted barely — enough to make more than 30,000 gallons of beer — and they say they could be malting a lot more of their barley harvest. Early next year, they hope to secure more sales by marketing to brewers before large orders are placed with the big maltsters for summer beers.
The brothers noted that their malted barley prices can be about twice as high as the big suppliers such as Cargill. They want to expand their volume and try to reduce their costs. But in the meantime, their higher prices aren’t necessarily a barrier.
Square Tail Brewing buys about 1 ton of malted barley at a time and would pay about $1,200 per ton for malt from a big supplier, Ellington said.
“My brewery isn’t quite big enough yet to benefit from better pricing tiers,” he said. “We choose to pay more for certain products. We just have to find other places to save or cut. Our beer is what makes or breaks us.”
The Buck brothers are confident they can rely on more than 200 acres of barley grown at their family farm to make quality malt at a larger scale, as long as demand for craft beer continues.
“There’s no bubble,” Jacob Buck said.
Aroostook County is not home to the bustling craft breweries that have sprouted up across Maine, New England and other parts of the country. A brewery and pub that opened in Presque Isle in 2004, Slopes Northern Maine Restaurant and Brewing Company, closed for lack of business not long afterward. But, 10 years later, the Buck brothers are not trying to sell beer locally; they want to produce and sell malts across the state through an integrated farm and malthouse business.
Their success may well depend on the sustainability of craft beer, which is still a niche, accounting for 11 percent of total U.S. beer sales in 2014, or nearly $20 billion, according to the Brewers Association. Part of craft beer’s growth may depend on older beer drinkers changing their habits and buying locally brewed ales, stouts and other brews, instead of the mass market mainstays.
“My generation were more of the Bud Lights and Miller Lights,” Bruce Buck, Joshua and Jacob Buck’s father, said. (“Or Milwaukee’s Best,” Joshua Buck added in jest.) “I am now a fan of craft beer,” Bruce Buck said.
The brothers are working with their craft brewery partners to pitch beers to the public that are all locally grown, hand-crafted and worth paying a bit more for.
“You can taste the local,” Jacob Buck said.
“There is a shift in today’s culture,” Ellington said. “People want to once again know where their food and drink are coming from. People are buying up to the fact that you might have to pay slightly higher prices for a pint of local brew because they like knowing not only where it was made but also [knowing] the people who made it.”