Cereal crops are one of our country’s major agricultural exports. It’s somewhat surprising then, that many of our craft brewers still source their malted barley from overseas, or from just a small handful of large national producers. Simply put, that’s because craft malting has previously never been an economically viable option for small producers. But, as the demand for locally sourced material and tailored malt varieties begins to grow, that’s beginning to change.
Standing at the forefront of this shift is Stuart Whytcross and business partner Brad Woolner, who established Voyager Craft Malt in the south-western Riverina region in NSW. The pair grew up on neighbouring grain farms near Barellan, home to their families for the past three generations, so it’s fair to say farming is in their blood. Originally intending to set up a craft brewery in their small town, something they partially achieved with the Barellan Beer Project, they found they generated most interest around the locally-sourced malt used in their beers.
“We had quite a few inquiries from other small craft breweries wanting to know how we could identify the origin of the malt in our beer and where they could also get some of that malt,” says Stu.
“We originally had five tonnes of our barley malted under contract for the Barellan Beer Project, some of which we sold to a few mates in craft breweries. The feedback from everyone involved, including the maltster, was really quite extraordinary and prompted us to start looking further in to the idea of establishing an on-farm malthouse.”
Stu and Brad spent many months researching malting procedures and equipment, something that took them on a worldwide research trip. Yet the idea of a self-sustaining malthouse producing high-quality malts on a small scale was a challenging one to turn into reality.
“We struggled for a long time,” says Stu. “Every time we were about to give up on the idea, we’d get an idea or opportunity that would give us some hope of getting it up and running again.”
Eventually, the solution came from somewhere quite unexpected.
“We came across a biochar facility operating on a nearby farm. They were turning agricultural waste – walnut shells, rice husks, cotton stalks – into biochar, an organic fertiliser. Not only were we excited about the prospect of using biochar on our crops, but also utilising the heat generated. A lot of design and engineering later and we’ve been able to harness the heat and use this sustainable source to fully kiln all our malts.”
Once they’d started down that route, other sustainability practices soon followed. Their steep water is used to irrigate crops nearby, while the malt is packaged in biodegradable and fully recyclable malt bags. Even the equipment used in the malthouse, which includes a germination kiln vessel, steep tank and drum roaster, has been designed by Stu and Brad and built locally, reducing the environmental and logistical costs involved with transport. Currently, their operation has an annual production of around 400 tonnes, produced in one or six tonne batches.
As for the barley, most of it is grown on the farms of family and friends. For instance, Latrobe variety barley, which produces Atlas malt, is grown by Jamie Kite in Binya, while Stu’s father, Ken Whytcross, grows a Schooner variety called Veloria in Barellan. That Schooner malt has been extensively used by Sydney’s Batch Brewing Company in their lager style Just Beer.
“The decision to use locally-sourced malt came down to us wanting to honour our customers,” says Batch co-founder Chris Sidwa. “They choose to buy beer locally sourced and we need to use the same integrity when we source our materials.”
As one of the first consistent purchasers of Voyager’s malt, Batch has had a heavy influence on their malting practices because, as a small producer, Voyager is able to tailor their product in order to meet the needs of their customers.
“We make changes regularly based on what the brewer is after; that’s the service we’re able to offer,” says Stu. “We love working closely with brewers – it’s essential for us to be able to tweak products especially for them. Their requirements are ultimately dictated by the beers they want to brew, or the systems they are using.
“The relationship we have with Batch is really one that every brewer should have with their maltster. We regularly talk about barley varieties, lab results, specifications and so on. The feedback they are able to give us is vital in being able to tailor our products to suit their needs.
"It’s a long-term relationship, so we can start to look at tailoring the products starting with what we plant in the ground, rather than just tailoring it in the malthouse.”
After testing the three malts varieties produced by Voyager last year – Schooner, Latrobe and Hindmarsh – Batch settled on the first, with Chris citing that was the variety that possessed the appropriate attenuation levels to achieve Just Beer’s desired residual sweetness. The next step was deciding how to malt it, something that’s gone through several iterations, currently resulting in a product that’s slightly darker than the original.
“That’s what we’re up to now, trialing kilning times and temperatures to get the right colour and complexity” says Chris. “It’s taken a little bit of time, but most of that has been waiting for this year’s crop. With the agricultural cycle, you don’t just get to change your mind tomorrow, you have to wait until it’s harvested.
“For us, it’s a journey we’re committed to making, because it’s being done for what we believe to be the right reasons. I’d argue that this is a beer with one of the shortest distances from paddock to pint. It travels directly from their farm to their malthouse, then to us in Sydney where it’s brewed and sold.”
As for the end product, Chris says: “It’s Just Beer – it’s just for the farmers, because they’re being paid a fair price and it’s just for the community because we’re reducing the carbon footprint. It’s our ability to start changing the way the economy works and the way the industry works.”
Other beers that have used Voyager’s malt include Hope Estate’s Belgian Voyage, Balter/Brewmanity’s The Beast Tamer and, most recently, Bad Shepherd’s SMASH IPA. That was made as part of Bad Shepherd’s Brew Crew Series, whereby non-brewing employees have the opportunity to create their own beers with the assistance and knowledge of the brew team. In this case, it was sales manager Scott Thompson who decided on a single malt and single hop (hence, SMASH) beer using Galaxy hops and Voyager’s Schooner malt.
“The decision to use their malt was, to me, a no brainer,” says Dereck Hales, head brewer and co-founder of Bad Shepherd. “Our purpose is all about beer and the way it should be. We’re all about community and being local. Where possible, everything is sourced within five to ten kilometres of our place.”
Bad Shepherd’s motivation to use that malt is slightly different to that of Batch, however. SMASH has acted as a sort of trial to test the viability of replacing Maris Otter, which features heavily in the brewery's beers, with Schooner.
“Maris Otter is a critical malt for craft brewers and effectively useless for the big guys because it’s so inefficient,” says Dereck. “But the flavour profile and what it does to the beer is critical. It’s an English variety and the carbon footprint of shipping it around the world is huge. It could be grown here, but the terroir for growing that cultivar wouldn’t quite work in Australia.”
However, Schooner malt is a viable alternative owing to its similar flavour profile, says Dereck.
“We want to look at starting to blend it in to our beers. Although our Hazelnut Brown is our flagship beer and uses a lot of Maris Otter, so we’d have to be careful about swapping it out entirely. But, if it delivers the same profile as Maris Otter, why ship that malt all around the world if we can grow our own wonderful malt here?”
As for Stu, who is also developing a range of gluten free products at Voyager, he’s more than happy with what has been achieved so far with the breweries with whom he has collaborated.
“We’re really excited in the role we can play in helping brewers push craft beer to new limits. Our quest to seek out or grow obscure and unique grains isn’t because we want to malt them, it’s because we want to see and taste what craft brewers can make with them.
“It’s also been wonderful in establishing a greater awareness of farming and its pivotal role in our daily lives – and more importantly, our future. It doesn’t really seem to matter where you look, farmers are getting a raw deal. If we continue to work with these breweries, they can help tell our story that will educate customers and think about the choices they are making.”
“One of our greatest achievements is that we’ve been able to set up this business in our own community, bolstering the local and regional economies. We love to see locals that we’ve grown up with get some recognition and thanks by a brewer or beer drinker for the role they’ve played in producing that beer. It’s pretty moving stuff.”
You can check out other articles in our series, The Collaborators, which focuses on businesses that are growing alongside craft beer, by heading here.
About the author: Marie Claire is a full-time craft beer enthusiast whose side hobbies include writing about beer (and winning awards for it) and completing a PhD in experimental physics. She can be found online at newsouthales.com.