Colorado maltster Todd Olander capitalizes on craft beer trend at Root Shoot Malting
| The Ag Journal
When Todd Olander and his wife, Emily, opened the doors of their new malthouse in August 2016, they expected the product to fly out the door.
Instead, it took several months of pounding the pavement to sell the first 2,000 pounds as the couple attempted to convince craft brewers across the northern Front Range to give them a try.
“We thought we’d made a big mistake,” Olander recalled recently.
But after they hired a full-time salesman with a background in brewing, the tide turned.
“In 2017, we were able to pay our bills, so that was a success for us,” Olander said.
By 2018, Root Shoot Malting, located south of Loveland, was selling everything it could make. The on-farm facility produces 20 tons of malt annually, which represents 1 million pounds of raw grain.
Olander shared his story in a YouTube video, produced and posted by the Colorado Grain Chain, as part of a series showcasing various uses for heritage grains. Olander was joined by malthouse manager Mike Myers to talk about what went into building the business from the ground up and the process behind making award-winning malts for craft breweries and distilleries.
Olander didn’t expect to return to the family farm his Swedish great-grandparents settled in the late 1800s.
Instead, he earned a degree in construction management from Colorado State University.
But during the summer he spent away working at an internship, he found he missed it. So he returned to the farm, and it has continued to evolve ever since.
His dad, Steve, always stressed diversification. The farm consists of 1,500 irrigated acres and 300 acres of dryland, with the primary crops being wheat, barley, rye, oats, corn, alfalfa and grass.
They do custom harvesting of corn silage and alfalfa for local dairies. In the past, they’ve raised sweet corn to sell to grocery stores, helped harvest popcorn and dabbled in the pickle industry by growing cucumbers.
“My dad always wanted to make sure we were diversified as far as our operation goes,” Olander said. “I’ve got that same gene. I like to be challenged and try different things. It keeps it interesting. It’s fun that way.”
Their journey into malting started in 2015 when they became interested in growing unique varieties of barley. At the time, big brewers like Coors were the only barley market in town, but the Olanders wanted to experiment with unusual varieties from North Dakota, Canada and France. Eventually they grew out seven 3-acre plots and malted five of them.
“Everything grew very well and performed really well, too,” Olander recalls.
They also grew some soft white wheat, which is usually lower in protein but works well for craft brewers.
Since then, they’ve set their sights on a unique and very rare wheat variety, which they learned about from a Danish brewer passing through. It was originally grown on an island in Sweden, a nod to the Olanders’ heritage.
After hearing about it, the Olanders spent a year and a half trying to find seed. Starting with just 1,000 pounds, they’ve been gradually increasing the original stock, 10 acres at a time, in hopes of eventually using it as their sole wheat source.
“It grows pretty wild. It doesn’t perform like a modern wheat, it has a lot deeper roots,” Olander said. “It has a really cool unique flavor, very earthy.”
“We will probably be the only malthouse in the country that’s ever malted this wheat,” he noted.
Olander’s exposure to the craft brewing culture as a college student in Fort Collins convinced him there was an opportunity for more specialty and locally based ingredient suppliers.
“I started going around to brewers to ask if they would be interested in purchasing any local grains and got lots of great feedback,” he said.
He and his dad wanted to do something that could be vertically integrated.
“A lot of times you don’t have any control over what you get paid, so we wanted to stabilize the business and get more profit off of our acres,” he said. “We wanted to add value to what we can grow in this area.”
A state-of-the-art process
In the video, Myers, the malthouse manager, offers a tour of a steeping vessel and two gleaming stainless steel drums, each weighing 34,000 pounds, which were manufactured in Germany.
Each batch of malt weighs 10 tons and requires the equivalent of 4 acres of barley. “So currently that’s about 400 acres we need to have enough supply for the year,” Olander explained. That same batch will make 180 barrels of beer, or 60,000 12-ounce bottles.
The malting process involves three steps: steeping or hydrating the grain; germinating it for 120 hours, with carefully controlled air temperature; and 35 hours of kilning, which dries it back to about 4 percent moisture.
“Raw barley is mostly starch and protein,” Myers explains. “Through this process, we are breaking down the starch and creating enzymes.”
When hot water is added, this concoction creates the sugar waters needed for the brewing process.
“We are literally on the forefront of the industry,” he added. “Our equipment puts us at the top and keeps our end product consistent.”
The facility currently produces 14 different malt styles, with assorted colors and flavors, depending on source grains and cooking temps. All of the variations stem from just two base barleys, LCS Odyssey and LCS Genie, but other grains such as rye and wheat can be malted too.
“We work with two other farmers in the area who grow some barley for us, on 150 acres, but the majority of the grains are grown on our property,” Olander said.
Product testing is rigorous. The grain is checked at harvest for protein and moisture content, as well as any toxins, before it goes into storage bins.
The malt is sent off for testing at the Hartwick College Center for Craft Food and Beverage in Oneonta, New York, a place where Olander got some advanced training in malting and one of the first facilities in the nation to offer full analysis of characteristics like friability.
“Now there are starting to be more facilities for getting raw and malt grain tested,” Olander said. “CSU and Montana State are working on making that available.”
With each batch, they also taste the steep, similar to hot tea, to monitor for any changes in flavor.
“We make brewer’s malt, and we also make distiller’s malt,” Myers explained. “It is kilned low and slow, preserving all the enzymes inside the grain so the distillers can access those enzymes. It tastes a bit like grass.”
“Craft spirits was kind of an undiscovered portion of the business,” Olander added. “We already grew corn, so we have all the raw materials. As we’ve grown, it’s become an important offshoot of the farm and of our business as well.”
Distillers use more raw grain than brewers, and the Olanders are selling some specialty production into that market.
The sense of community that surrounds craft beverages proved its worth during the pandemic.
“You had this breakdown in supply, and you also had people at home looking at more artisanal things,” Myers said. “People are rediscovering the lost arts and taking a look inward. There’s a resurgence of community-driven breweries. It’s about supporting local people in your community.”
Customers stepping up to support their favorite brew pubs during a challenging year trickled down to suppliers like the Olanders, too.
“Our focus has always been quality,” Olander said. “But when the pandemic happened, everybody realized the importance of this unique beer community we have. Or really just the value of community in general.”
“Community, not commodity” is the mantra of the Colorado Grain Chain, a nonprofit group advocating for more heritage grain production.
New videos are posted monthly on the Grain Chain’s YouTube Channel and Facebook feed.
Go to RootShootMalting.com to learn more about the Olander’s farm and malting operation.
This content was originally published here.