LISBON FALLS, Maine — The name comes from Paul Bunyan’s favorite companion. And if the stars align, Joel Alex’s Blue Ox Malthouse might do for the grain industry what Bunyan did for lumber.
In a warehouse down an industrial road in Lisbon Falls, Maine’s newest maltster is bent over a stainless steel tank. Unloading damp and freshly germinating barley to be mixed, the Colby College graduate makes a batch of what soon will go to market: craft malt made of 100 percent Maine grains.
This key ingredient in brewing is the foundation of the age-old beverage. Malt gives beer color and body and, some brewers say, its soul. But until recently, it has not been produced locally or even nationally.
“We are in an emerging industry, similar to where craft brewing was in the 1980s,” Alex, a thoughtful 29 year old who grew up in Old Town, said. “We are taking a commodity product and creating a craft, quality production out of it by using local, raw product and processing it locally.”
After an 18-month search that took him from Biddeford to Caribou, Alex found the right fit. In January, he moved into a sprawling space, once home to a shoe manufacturer and garden tech company.
Inside Blue Ox Malthouse’s 7,500-square-foot facility, rows of 2,000-pound totes of barley from Mapleton stand at the ready. Soon the grain will go through a seven-day, three-step process, turning 8,000-pound batches into malt.
To malt raw grain, it has to steep in water, germinate and dry in a kiln.
Once malted, Brewers crush barley and add warm water to make a mash. This extracts the sugars into the liquid so it can be used for brewing. Alex learned the craft in Winnipeg, thanks to a $1,000 technical grant from Maine Grain Alliance.
Just like milling, malting is starting to ramp up regionally, and Blue Ox is poised to lead the way.
“Joel stands to serve an exploding market of microbreweries that are looking to differentiate themselves with local grains and unique recipes,” Amber Lambke, executive director of the Skowhegan-based alliance, said. Lambke met Alex at the Kneading Conference she runs every July and was impressed with his desire to help grow Maine’s “grain cluster.”
The cluster includes “goods and services and businesses that are good for grains,” Lambke said. “Farmers, millers, bakers, maltsters, distillers and brewers all fit into a grain cluster.”
Although not on the market until later this summer, Blue Ox Malthouse is further proof of the “enlightened awareness of the strength of the grain industry,” she said. “Malting is an activity that has not happened in Maine in a long time.”
Slowly, that is changing.
In Mapleton, The Maine Malt House opened in February. Third-generation potato farmers converted an old potato house to malt their barley at Buck Farms. “Everyone’s anxious to try it,” Joshua Buck, head maltster, said.
The startup sells malt to breweries that include Gritty’s, where a Mapleton Blonde made with 100 percent Aroostook County barley is on tap. The farm also sells raw malt barley to Blue Ox. Buck views Alex more as partner than competitor.
“The farming community overall has potential. There are not a lot of places to go for malt quality barley,” Buck, who is growing 240 acres of the crop, said. “It’s another source for farmers to sell.”
Five years ago, the majority of malt sold to brewers was coming from Canada or overseas, Lambke said. Maine barley farmers had to export their crop to be malted. After water, malt makes up 90 percent of beer, Alex said. The micro-beer market offers a ready outlet for local malt.
To Sean Sullivan, executive director of Maine Brewer’s Guild, there is major potential in the regional malt market. “Craft beer is about sense of place, and this magnifies that,” he said.
A company like Shipyard uses hundreds of tons of malt every week. By comparison, Blue Ox expects to produce half a million pounds annually. The new sector has room to grow. “We are seeing the huge economic impact brewers are having in Maine,” Sullivan said. “The malthouse is a key component of that.”
And Lisbon Falls, home to Moxie, now has a new invention to brag about. Much like his space, Alex found his business niche after a long search. The environmental studies student worked on farms for years in Farmington. He wanted to help strengthen Maine’s food system and buttress the state’s “working landscape.” A chance encounter with a Maine brewer set the malthouse in motion. “He told me this is what’s needed, and no one is doing it,” said Alex.
He asked himself, “How can I help Maine develop sustainably? How do we make it viable economically?”
As he prepares for new equipment to arrive, including a floor malting system and kiln, he will soon find those answers.
“We are in a really fun spot,” Alex said. “We are helping breweries find unique products and connect to their community so they can put out locally brewed beers. It’s an exciting time.”