Owner James Weed provides Utah brewers and distillers with the malted and smoked grains they need to produce their flavor-forward products.
Weed isn’t a farmer. To use the quirky-sounding term for his craft, he’s a “maltster.” Still, despite working indoors, Weed says, “Officially, the state has [my business] categorized as a farm. The USDA has [malting categorized as] value-added agriculture, basically.”
Weed’s malted barley definitely adds value to Utah’s craft beer and spirits scene. Around 20 breweries and six distilleries in the state utilize goods originating at his craft malthouse. Customers include Hopkins Brewing Co., Sugar House Distillery, Level Crossing Brewing Company, Bewilder Brewing Co., and Alpine Distilling.
After Weed receives barley from the farmers he works with, he’ll first clean it, before letting it soak in his two large steeping tanks for “12 hours underwater and then 12 hours air rest and then another 12 hours soaking.”
Next, Weed spreads it out on the floor of his refrigerated warehouse, keeping it cool. He lets it sprout over a 15-day period, raking the batch “every 10 to 12 hours so it grows homogeneously.” The barley is ready when “a lot of the proteins have been broken down inside the grain and all of the enzymes have been activated.” Weed adds, “It will smell kind of cucumber-y when it’s alive and growing — and that’s a good smell. You don’t want any kind of sour smells or off flavors.”
The sprouted barley will then move on a conveyor into his kiln, where it will be dried for about a full day. “When you’re kilning it, it smells more like a bakery,” he says. “It’s really biscuity on the days you’re drying it out.” Weed produces about eight different types of malt, which can be used for beer styles ranging from, say, pilsners to pales ales. But darker beers like porters and stouts require the malts to be roasted — something Weed doesn’t do quite yet.
After the results are de-bearded — the rootlets separated from the barley — and it’s cleaned again, Weed bags the malt. He often personally delivers the 50-pound bags or 2,000-pound supersacks to the breweries and distilleries he works with, as well as the homebrew shops that sell his products.
In 2019, Solstice Malt produced 100 tons of malted barley — one four-ton batch at a time. This year, thanks to Weed starting to stagger his batches, he expects to produce 260 tons. Still, he says that’s a small amount compared with “the big maltsters” out there: “They’ll do more in one batch than I’ll do in a year.”
Weed puts his back into his craft work. “It helps you burn off some beer calories,” he says with a laugh. Indeed, Weed often tests batches of malt by making a small quantity of his own beer with it.
That’s how Weed became smitten with the world of malting. He was originally a homebrewer working within the world of finance as an investment advisor. What started off as a hobby, gradually turned into an all-encompassing passion. He spent increasing amounts of time researching malting — just like he did stocks — as well as acquiring equipment to try his own hand at the pursuit. Weed crunched the numbers, before taking the plunge into the business. “A number of [malting] companies back East had opened up around my [current] size and they had seen some success,” he says, before adding, “I saw an industry that was not as cutthroat as most of the finance world. It was really nice to be a part of it.”
Weed now sits on the board of directors of the Craft Maltsters Guild, advising on both finance and trends in the Mountain States. He sees a lot of parallels between the world of craft malting and the early days of craft brewing, when brewers were “building their own equipment and sourcing their own materials.”
The tanks Weed employs for steeping barley used to belong to a mining company. “They were almost built to the specs I would have made,” he says. His kiln used to be a high school’s walk-in refrigerator — albeit, one that’s now been modified with sensor technology to help Weed do his present-day job more effectively. He’s got a grain cleaner, made with solid oak, built in 1947. Weed also uses an old industrial freezer in which cold smokes malts — imparting the flavors bestowed by wood, hazelnut shells, or peat (some of which he’s foraged himself in the Uinta Mountains).
Weed sometimes visits the farms he works with, observing the barley in the field — which emits a “husky smell,” mixed together with dusty soil aromas and all that fresh, country air. Given that the last business to do its own malting in Utah stopped the practice in the early 1950s, farmers have mostly been producing barley suited for animal feed — not the kind that will eventually be utilized by brewers and distillers. Weed says, “I’ve offered them about double the price for what they’d get for feed barley for malting barley — so I’ve had some warm reception from the farmers.” Barley used for malting also demands less fertilizer.
“I really like the harvest days, going to the farm, even being in the field,” Weed says about those origin points for his barley, wheat (which he also malts), and corn (which he flakes and sells). “It’s amazing what it starts out as — and knowing what it’s going to be turned into.”
Challenges: Weed points to water shortages hitting farms, which might lead to supply issues: “With less water, you’re going to have less yield of crops.”
Opportunities: “I’d like to get more into roasting,” says Weed. “I think what I could add to Utah brewing is freshly-roasted malt.” Presently, Solstice Malt can produce malts up to 35 Standard Reference Method, which encompasses a variety of possible beer styles.
Needs: “I’m thinking I need an employee,” says Weed. “I mean, four tons doesn’t sound like a lot until you’re shoveling it. I need another person to bag the grain while I’m cleaning it.”