Malt Is the New Hops

One Oregon family is betting their farm on local-malted boutique barley

At the end of a long gravel road in the desert plains just east of the Cascades, 3½ million pounds of specially bred barley sleeps in massive multistory silos, waiting to be transformed.

Twelve tons at a time, the kernels will spend a week in a massive craft-malting machine—the largest and most technologically advanced in North America—designed and operated by the same family that has cultivated grain on this land for more than 100 years.

The final product, Mecca Grade Estate Malt, is among the first of its kind in Oregon: specially bred, unique-tasting barley that's grown and malted on the same land for brewing and distilling.

It's an idea on which the Klann family has mortgaged its entire 1,000-acre farm.

"People like Willamette Valley pinot noir," says farmer and maltster Seth Klann from inside a reclaimed-wood tasting room at his family's new facility. "Why couldn't Central Oregon be known for this kind of malt?"

Because of the scale and special facilities required to process barley for brewing, the vast majority of malt still comes from a handful of large conglomerates.

"Most of the barley you taste in Oregon beer is coming from Canada and Montana, and it's typically two varieties," Klann says, "They grow well, but they've also bred all the flavor out of them."

The grain selected by the Klann family is different. A semi-dwarf variety called Full Pint that was bred at Oregon State University, it's a blend of Czech and Ecuadorian barley that grows perfectly in the drier climates of Central Oregon. Known for its fat, plump kernels, it offers a blend of complex flavors that is unique to our region.

"The characteristics of [Klann's] malt are uniquely his, from the varietal and specific place it was grown," says Bend brewer Paul Arney, whose boutique brewery, Ale Apothecary, uses Mecca Grade Estate Malt almost exclusively. "That excites me, because the idea of sourcing from specific locations is that they can place their thumbprint on your product."

The family's interest in cultivating and malting craft barley began five years ago, when Seth Klann took control of the farm from his father, Brad.

A longtime homebrewer, Seth Klann had been malting some of the family's wheat in his garage for personal use, having previously only been able to buy malted wheat of similar quality from Weyermann Malting in Germany.

"That's what gave me the idea," he says. "I thought, 'Why the hell aren't we making this?'"

The Klanns trace their Oregon heritage back to an abolitionist farmer named Henderson Luelling, who brought 1,000 fruit trees from Iowa and planted them on land now occupied by Waverly Country Club in Southeast Portland.

Those trees would become the parent stock of the vast majority of Willamette Valley orchards.

Even with the large investment required, it wasn't hard for Seth Klann to convince his father of his plan. Brad Klann himself was a pioneer, spending much of his working life focused on water conservation as one of the first farmers in Central Oregon to use pivoting overhead irrigation.

To learn their new trade, the farmers packed up their cowboy boots and flannel and headed to a malting school in Winnipeg, Canada.

The Klanns were two of three people there, and soon realized they had bigger dreams than most.

"The other guy was from Vermont, and he was malting in a box on a 1-ton scale," Seth Klann says.

Recognizing the enormity of their planned operation—the family cultivated 300 acres of barley last year—the Klanns came up with a design for a higher-capacity malting machine.

At big operations like Great Western Malting in Vancouver, Wash., the three steps of malting contract-grown grain occur in different vessels. Grain is steeped in huge vats, germinated in tanks, and then kilned in massive 8-foot-deep trenches that are baked evenly by being turned by giant screws.

The Klanns' malting machine is totally different. Designed and constructed with the help of a local contractor who had previously focused largely on potato fryers, it's a stainless-steel box about the size of two shipping containers end to end.

Each stage of malting occurs inside the same vessel and, when kilning, it has a grain depth of about 12 inches, with the barley being flipped rather than turned with screws. The final product is similar to the famed hand-turned grains available in Europe.

"No one in the world is moving malt like this," Seth Klann says of his machine. "We wanted to make sure that everything we did was new, and that the flavor would benefit from it."

Everything about his brand is personal. It's named after hill near the farm—the Mecca Grade—and Klann even designed the brand's logo based on a photo of a long-passed relative bringing wheat down the hill.

Mecca Grade Estate Malt comes in four differently kilned varieties, designed to add an Oregon twist to the finest European-style malts. Pelton, Lamonta, Vanora and Metolius represent takes on Pilsner, Pale, Vienna and Munich malts. Each are named after ghost towns surrounding the Klann farm. Wheat and rye malts, as well as darker-kilned crystal malts, are soon to follow.

Even the packaging is detail-oriented: Following a request from the Ale Apothecary's Arney, every bag was made fully compostable.

That's what it takes to stand out in today's market. And Mecca Grade doesn't come cheap. It costs more than twice the wholesale price of malts typically used in Oregon beer.

"At the end of the day," Klann says, "it has to be something special for the brewer to want to take a chance on it."

For people like Conrad Andrus of Portland's Culmination Brewing, Mecca Grade malt is something he tends to order for particularly important batches, like a recent collaboration beer with the Commons.

"We definitely try to use them whenever we're going after something special," Andrus says. "They are one of the best maltsters in the United States."

It's a sentiment echoed by Robin Johnson, head brewer at Deschutes brewpub in Bend. He hopes a craft-malt revolution will develop new and unique flavors in Oregon beer.

"We want to help build that niche-malting thing in our industry," Johnson says, "Seth is such a cool guy, and what he is doing is so interesting. It just blows me away."

After years of research and development, and the farm's massive transition to barley, there's a gleam in Brad Klann's eye when he talks about the future of the family business forged by his son.

"If they want that flavor, you're it," he says after taking a sip of a Deschutes beer made with Mecca Grade malt. "And that's something to be proud of."

Willamette Week's journalism is funded, in part, by our readers. Your help supports local, independent journalism that informs, educates, and engages our community. Become a WW supporter.