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Discovering western Washington grains in your glass

We may not think of western Washington for grain production, but think again. Think not only of bread, but of beer and booze as well and you can see the possibilities for a thriving Pacific Northwest specialty grain industry.

“If you come to Skagit Valley to look at the tulips, you probably don’t notice that there’s 15,000 acres of wheat and barley in this valley,” said Stephen Jones, wheat breeder and director of the WSU Mount Vernon Research Center. Grains like wheat and barley are important for maintaining soil health when they are grown as a rotation crop between cycles of the vegetable and flower crops that are the bread and butter of Skagit Valley farmers.

Stephen Jones examines western Washington grains in a WSU Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center greenhouse. Photo by Sylvia Kantor/WSU.
Stephen Jones examines western Washington grains in a WSU Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center greenhouse. Photo by Sylvia Kantor/WSU.

Jones and his research team at the WSU Mount Vernon Bread Lab in the Skagit Valley are using traditional breeding methods to develop and test contemporary and historic varieties of wheat, barley and oats. They are developing grain varieties that are not only suited to the maritime climate of the Skagit River delta, but that offer unique qualities that commodity grain production has left behind.

What they are discovering is terroir: flavors that reflect the soil, water, and climate of the Skagit Valley, flavors that are uniquely tied to place. This discovery is a revelation to farmers, chefs, millers, artisan bakers, and craft brewers and distillers who, along with Jones, hope to usher in a renaissance of grain in western Washington.

Growing demand

The WSU Bread Lab recently has enjoyed its share of the limelight among chefs and bakers nationally and internationally. The lab is one of the only places in the country where non-commodity wheat growers can have their grain tested for bread suitability. The lab currently tests grain from seven different states plus Washington. But Washington craft brewers and distillers are also paying close attention to WSU’s research with grains grown west of the Cascades.

At the same time that artisan bread was emerging as a trend in the late 20th century, the Pacific Northwest was becoming a hotbed for craft beer, a trend that has grown into an estimated $440 million industry in Washington today. Demand for locally grown products has set the stage for craft brewing and distilling industries to capitalize on the flavor of western Washington wheat and barley. And with changes to Washington liquor laws in 2008, the timing couldn’t be better.

The state now allows for small batch distilling (up to 60,000 gallons a year) and requires that 50% of the raw ingredients be grown in Washington, a rule intended to benefit farmers and the state’s economy. The Washington State Liquor Control Board began recording sales data for the nascent craft distilling industry in 2011. Since then, total sales are estimated at $9.2 million.

The heart and soul of beer

Charles Finkel knows very well that malted barley is the heart and soul of beer. Finkel is the founder and owner of Pike Place Brewing Company, one of the first five microbreweries established in Washington in the late 80s. “A prayer was answered when the Skagit Valley Malting Company was conceived, a local malting company geared for craft brewing,” Finkel said.

Malted barley. Photo by Sylvia Kantor/WSU.
Malted barley. Photo by Sylvia Kantor/WSU.

Skagit Valley Malting Company is just down the road from the WSU Mount Vernon Research Center. The company’s co-founder, Wayne Carpenter, explained that the cool nights, long summer days, and rain means that grains grown in western Washington don’t experience drought stress and therefore have a low protein content. “This is wonderful for distilling and brewing,” Carpenter said. “Low protein grain can only be grown in six places in the world. One of them is here.”

Carpenter and his partners are building the first custom malting enterprise in Washington to support craft brewing and distilling, based on this fact. “We’re custom malting with a profile that each grain needs.” The idea for Skagit Valley Malting rose from a desire to see agriculture in Skagit Valley thrive. Carpenter and Jones estimate that the Skagit Valley could support double what grows there now. Skagit Valley Malting Company’s 11,000-square-foot malting facility, scheduled to come on line in 2014, is designed to produce 2500 to 3000 tons per year of finished malt. This may sound like a lot, but according to Carpenter it would serve only five percent of the microbreweries currently in the state.

Finkel, a former wine merchant who helped put Washington state wines on the map, thinks there’s plenty of room to further improve the craft brewing industry in Washington by working with farmers to produce locally malted grain. He believes that customers will soon demand beer made with locally grown and malted barley. Other breweries, including Fremont Brewing Company and Elysian Brewing, both in Seattle, are interested in malt produced in the Skagit Valley.

Spirits of experimentation

Malted barley is also the heart and soul of single malt whiskey, which is produced by essentially making beer and then distilling it into the final golden product.

Emerson Lamb is the president and co-founder of the family-owned Westland Distillery in Seattle, which now claims the title of the first single malt whiskey distillery in Washington and the largest in North America, producing 1200 liters daily, six days a week. With a relatively long history of craft brewing in the state, Lamb was astonished that a single malt whiskey distillery had yet to be established in a state that boasts two world class barley growing regions – Skagit Valley and the Palouse.

Whiskey for the tasting. Photo by Sylvia Kantor/WSU.
Whiskey for the tasting. Photo by Sylvia Kantor/WSU.

In Washington, far from the traditional land of single malt whiskey, Lamb feels it is very important that his product reflect its place of origin. “That’s why we’re really excited to work with Skagit Valley Malting. We can be hyper-local with flavor,” he said. Roasting and kilning the grain in the malting process is what creates the palette of flavors a distiller can work with, Lamb explained. But he also emphasized that climate and grain variety affect kernel size and husk thickness and these also offer important contributions to flavor in whiskey.

As a small distiller, Lamb has the flexibility to produce single batch, single varietal, or even single farm whiskeys. He embraces a spirit of experimentation and is grateful to find that same spirit at WSU in Mount Vernon. “We see science and academia pushing the envelope in terms quality and consistency. What’s so exciting about that is that whiskey is ready for it,” Lamb said.

Options for all

Research coming out of WSU Mount Vernon, is shifting the way Dave Hedlin, an organic and conventional vegetable grower in La Conner, Wash., thinks about growing grain. “It’s changing the way we look at grains here in the valley,” Hedlin said. In the past, farmers focused on growing grain as a rotation crop as cheaply as possible. “Now it’s, how can you grow it organically or conventionally, to get these attributes that are desirable?” Hedlin said. He is thrilled to have more market options for his grain crops beyond animal feed.

Steve Jones and Wayne Carpenter envision a western Washington grain economy that offers more options for everyone. With a strong desire to create market alternatives that are tied to place, the components are lining up – research to produce and test grains that farmers can grow for added value, more varieties brewers and distillers can select for custom malting, passionate entrepreneurs along the supply chain, and the resulting libations that impart local flavor and pride of place.

The next time you visit Skagit Valley, look for the wheat or barley growing between the vegetable and tulip fields and take note. It could be the next biggest thing since sliced bread.

Learn more about research happening at the WSU Mount Vernon Research and Extension Center: