Minnesota ranks 15th nationwide for craft breweries. According to 2019 data from the Brewer’s Association, 196 craft brewing companies were making 4.8 gallons of beer for each of-age adult in the land of 10,000 lakes per year.
It was during a tour of a Minnesota brewery that Noreen Thomas first became inspired to connect with the craft brewing industry after seeing all the grains they used.
Thomas and her husband, Lee, farm 1,200 certified organic acres of crops and produce on their fifth-generation farm nestled on the Buffalo River near Moorhead, Minn.
“Craft beer enthusiasts are constantly seeking novel ingredients to expand the variety of offerings, and create a unique experience around their brew,” Thomas says. “This quest for a unique flavor can be met with locally-sourced ingredients, thus providing expanded market options for farmers to grow grain for the production.”
At Doubting Thomas Farms, Thomas wanted to explore the potential of using organic heritage grains for malt, a key ingredient in beer. Typically made with barley, malt is essentially toasted grains, and malted grains affect beer’s color, flavor, and sugar content.
Working in collaboration with two other local farmers, Melany Thomas and Owen Trangsrud, along with Vertical Malt, a small-scale malting operation in Crookston, Thomas received a $26,978 North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education farmer-rancher grant to explore alternative grain crops for the malting market.
“We wanted to identify varieties of organic heritage oats, organic heritage wheat and organic heritage barley that would malt with good flavor,” Thomas says.
Doubting Thomas FarmsVERSATILE OAT: With a smooth and creamy texture when cooked, Doubting Thomas's malted oats can be used for eating or for beer making.
The team tested Tinka barley (a German variety), organic Conlon barley, Paul hulless oats, Boiles wheat and Red Fife wheat. Ideally, protein for malting needs to be between 11% and 13.5%. Each batch size for the malting process required a minimum of 2,500 pounds of grain, including shrinkage involved within the process. They brought the grains to Vertical Malt for malting and then sent the malt to various breweries.
“The varieties that worked well were organic Conlon barley, Paul hulless oats and Red Fife wheat,” Thomas says. “Tinka barley was difficult to grow and lodged as well. Plus, when the weather was raining nonstop at harvest time, the DON (a contaminating mycotoxin known as deoxynivalenol) popped up to near 3.0 ppm.” Less than 1 ppm is acceptable.
Crafting relationships and beer
Working with Vertical Malt gave Thomas the opportunity to connect with Lakes and Legends Brewing Company in Minneapolis. Together, they produced a 100% Minnesotan beer called MN Haze, a hazy IPA brewed for the 2019 Minnesota State Fair. The brew sold out during the first day of the fair and they restocked. It received a white ribbon from The Growler magazine among 48 new alcoholic drinks at the state fair in 2019.
Doubting Thomas FarmsEXCLUSIVE BEER: Lakes & Legends Brewing Company based in downtown Minneapolis collaborated with three Minnesota Grown farming partners — Mighty Axe Hops, Vertical Malt and Doubting Thomas Farms — to release a Minnesota State Fair exclusive beer, “MN HAZE”, in 2019.
“We learned a lot about the brewing industry and are still learning,” Thomas says. “Without the SARE grant, I would not have met any of these people. It gave us resources to explore.”
Work with breweries is emerging, she added, and those relationships can get intense.
“I have worked in local foods for 18 years and found this work to be much more relationship-bound with more questions about quality of product,” Thomas says.
Half Brothers Brewing Company in North Dakota used Doubting Thomas Farms’ oats and Vertical Malt’s local barley to launch a new beer called OAT-Standing, an oat pale ale. More recently, Bang Brewing Company in St. Paul began working with Doubting Thomas Farms and Vertical Malt to process their organically- grown barley and oats. Bang Brewing was the first brewery to join the Artisan Grain Collaborative, a group working to create viable markets for small grains to promote crop diversification; Doubting Thomas Farms is also a member of the group.
The Artisan Grain Collaborative is working to build a new kind of food system, one that invests in regenerative management, and equitably provides nutrient-dense grains.
Learn more at the Artisan Grain Collective website.
Flanagan is the communications specialist for the USDA-SARE program in the North Central Region.