(This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2014 annual report of River Valley Market [now River Valley Co-op], Northampton, Mass.)
You wouldn’t even know it’s there, as you drive north on Route 47 from Hadley Center. It doesn’t have a flashy sign (or any sign at all, for that matter), and it’s pretty well disguised. The premises don’t beg for a second glance.
You might not know it’s there, but chances are—if you’re a beer enthusiast living in the Pioneer Valley— you’ve heard of it: Valley Malt. Husband-and-wife duo Andrea and Christian Stanley had been home-brewing beer for years when they began searching for locally produced malts to aid them in their hobby. They soon found out that the consolidation of the malting industry into giant Midwestern operations had made the New England malthouse an extinct species for the past 100 years.
When they opened Valley Malt in 2010, though it had sprung from a hobby, they had a bigger picture in mind. If you talk about Valley Malt with Andrea—a board member at River Valley Market—you’re likely to hear words like “local,” “sustainable,” and “scalable.” She and Christian saw a gap in the systems that connected local food producers and consumers, and they decided to fill that gap. They thought local brewers would buy locally malted grains, and they thought local farmers would begin to grow more maltable grains when the demand had been established.
Valley Malt’s success and growth over the past four years—Christian quit his day job in July to focus on the operation—have proven the Stanleys right on both counts. You could easily mistake it for any other large garage on the residential street. Inside, though, Valley Malt is a well-coordinated system of computer-controlled tanks, alongside spaces and machines used for more traditional methods of malting. The finished product—the malted grain—gets put into fifty-pound sacks, and is sold to a number of area brewers.
Christian’s work background is in mechanical engineering, and Andrea has experience teaching entrepreneurship to youth. They bring these areas of expertise, along with Andrea’s interest in food culture and history, to the operations of Valley Malt. It’s not unusual, says Andrea, that she’ll find mention of some historical malting method in a book, and Christian will be able to build an apparatus so they can experiment with the method.
To round it all out, most of their family vacations (with their 9-, 6-, and 5-year-olds) revolve around some aspect of malting. Andrea has a contagious enthusiasm for the process. She’s quick to point out that the proper term for someone who malts is not a “malter,” but rather a “maltster.” She assures me this is historically accurate, and not just a play on the word “hipster,” although—as she’ll admit—some of the latter may be coming into play as well.
She’s not enthusiastic about all aspects of the business, though. While she loves feeling pleasantly exhausted at the end of each day, and addressing any little problems that come up, she knows her limits and her desires. “The things I don’t like,” she says, “I just pay other people to do.” This includes tasks like bookkeeping, payroll, and certain marketing tasks. Knowing what she doesn’t want to do helps her keep her focus on what she does want to do: not only grow Valley Malt, but help other malthouses open their doors in the Northeast.
To this end, she helped to found the Craft Maltster’s Guild and launched www.craftmalting.com. Christian has been engaged in consulting with up-and-coming malthouses, offering his experience and knowledge to help these newer ventures succeed. Among those he’s working with are nascent ventures Queen City Malt and Niagara Malt, both of New York. This co-operation with other enterprises is part of what the Stanleys see as the greater goal: the rebirth of a robust and localized malting industry in the Northeast.
As Valley Malt grows, and helps demonstrate what might be possible, what does it feel like to be in charge of it all? As Andrea puts it, “It’s still crazy, and it probably always will be crazy, but—it seems like we’re getting a little bit more of a handle on things.”