This article originally appeared in Buffalo Spree Magazine’s August 2017 issue.
By now, it’s more than safe to say that locally made craft beer has made a comeback in Western New York, with new breweries opening faster than ever. Pub crawls, human-pedaled beer trolleys, brewers’ festivals, booze cruises, and tap takeovers have all become part of our libation lexicon. And the market is far from being saturated; most breweries say that beer lovers are flocking to tap rooms to gulp down the good stuff faster than fermenting tanks can churn it out.
But there is one aspect of the local beer scene that hasn’t joined the party quite yet: local ingredients used to brew the beer.
Like many places in America, Buffalo’s beer industry—which included countless small breweries, hops and grain growers, and malting houses—ground to a halt during prohibition. It wasn’t until 1986 that the first microbrewery in the area, Buffalo Brewpub in Williamsville, opened, but by then most of the hops, barley, rye, and other raw materials were only being grown and processed by large-scale operations far west of Buffalo. That’s slowly beginning to change.
Niagara Malt in Cambria, run by Robert Johnson and Brenda Young, is one of a growing handful of agricultural producers that is starting to address the supply side of local brewing by growing hops, grains, and the facilities to process the raw materials into ingredients that brewers then turn into beer.
The fourteen-acre farm sustainably grows seven varieties of organic hops using a low-trellis system of ten-foot-tall upright log supports laced with grids of string to support the climbing hop bines (not vines). Many farmers opt for a high-trellis system, where mature bines grow upwards of fifteen feet along a vertical support line; to harvest, growers simply snip the line at the top so the whole bine falls to the ground. While more labor intensive, the low-trellis system allows vines to spread out rather than up, where farmers can selectively harvest hops at their prime in two or three rounds instead of one. From the road, the rows are reminiscent of the grape vines that thrive in similar soil conditions at neighboring vineyards around Niagara County.
Johnson, a semi-retired Medaille College professor who teaches ecology, botany, and epidemiology, started farming hops as a hobby in 2012 around the same time others began growing hops in the area. Then he heard about the Farm Brewery Act, which requires that in order to obtain a Farm Brewery License, brewers must source at least twenty percent of their ingredients from those grown in New York State. Locally grown hops had become easier to get—but malt was a different story.
“Hops are sexy, but malt is the heartbeat of beer—and nobody was really growing and malting yet,” Johnson explains.
He planted a field of grain, apprenticed at Valley Malt to learn the malting process, bought one of their old malting tanks, built a small metal barn according to New York State Agriculture and Market requirements for food production, and got to work. The learning curve, he says, was huge; it took him about a year to get the malts to turn out the way he wanted.
Malting is essentially a highly controlled fermentation of grains for use in brewing and distilling. One ton of grain is loaded into a huge metal tank where it’s soaked to encourage it to sprout (or germinate) and ferment, then heated to stop germination and dry the grains at the exact point where sugars are ideal for brewing. Between blasts of heat to dry the grains, Johnson dons sterile white coveralls, climbs a ladder into the tank, and turns the whole tangle of sprouted grains by hand with a pitchfork to aerate them; he’ll do this three times per batch and jokes that he got rid of his gym membership because malt turning is a several-hour-long workout. The whole process from raw grain to finished product takes about a week.
Niagara Malt processes grains grown at other local farms like Sheldon Grain Co. and Millville Brothers, plus a smaller quantity of heritage grains like buckwheat and barley grown in the fields behind the malt house. This summer, Niagara Malt harvested spelt, a grain previously only grown locally by the Amish.
Both Johnson and Young are ecologists by training (Young is a professor of biology and Chair of Global and Local Sustainability at Daemen College), and their scientific sensibility and deep-rooted commitment to sustainability is evident in every aspect of Niagara Malt. Water conservation and soil health are paramount in their growing operation. They wrote a grant to switch their malting tank heating elements to a pellet boiler hybrid system (the first industrial application of a pellet boiler in the state), cutting their electricity consumption from 1,600 kw/h per batch down to 200. All of their electricity comes from renewable sources. They even recycle their barley nibs (the part of the grain that gets separated from the brewable part and discarded) and undersized grain into feed for the chickens and pigs at Gormley Farms in Wilson.
These feel-good hops and grains taste good, too. They’ve become part of beers and spirits produced by more than twenty breweries and distilleries around New York State, and are available for sale to home brewers through Niagara Traditions. If you’ve had a Frank from Community Beer Works, a Lackawanna Lager from Lafayette Brewing Company, or a North 425 Pilsner from Woodcock Brothers (named for the road that connects the brewery to Niagara Malt), you’ve tasted Niagara Malt products.
This summer, Niagara Malt, along with fellow maltsters and hop farmers like 1816 Malt House and Koester Hops, were featured in the 2017 Buffalo Brewers Festival’s first-ever Farm-to-Pint tent, which shone a spotlight on limited-edition, 100 percent locally sourced beers produced by eight area breweries. Inside, revelers raised pints to the future of beer production in Western New York, which is looking more local and delicious than ever.
Photos by KC Kratt