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mushroom head

I’ll admit, sometimes I rest on my laurels when describing any brown beer I’m drinking: “I don’t know, I guess it’s malty?” Malty. Like calling something “interesting,” it’s a cop-out that implies flavor while hardly saying anything at all. Maybe notes of toffee? A rye spiciness and a clean mouthfeel? The breadth of characteristics malt can impart is as wide as it is complex. Still, I can see why drinkers struggle to place what makes malt so special. Suffering from a case of middle child syndrome, malt lacks the panache of palate blasting hops and fails to rile the zeitgeist like wild yeast does—but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. At the foundation of every good beer is its grain, and while malt remains an unsung ingredient in the public eye, there are some passionate maltsters out there looking to change its reputation.

Enter Mushroom Head Malt Company. The brainchild of husband and wife duo Richard and Danni Vierzen, Mushroom Head represents a merging of its founders talents—Danni’s scientific mind and Richard’s ability to harvest just about any crop on Earth in full. A hand on his father’s dairy farm since he could swing a rake, Richard has grown into a man who understands and loves land. He affectionately refers to his own with feminine pronouns, “A heavy rain and her soil will spill into the pond,” and “She’s gonna put out a great harvest this year.” From the looks of it, she most certainly will.

mushroom head

Richard and Danni’s malting journey began a few years back after a bad farm deal. We’ll spare the nitty gritty. Essentially they were forced to shift from their normal farming practices and turn lemons to lemonade—or barley to malt if you will. “We first attended the Great lakes Hops and Barley convention in 2016 thinking that hops would be a good idea,” Danni said. “We quickly saw a need for Michigan barley and we had already been growing top grade cereal grains for the last 10 years.”

So they erected a barn to germinate and kiln grain and then, bingo, a malt farm was born.

Recently, I paid a visit to the Vierzen’s farm in Saranac, MI and spent the day learning more about the process from seed to grain sack. Mostly though, I moseyed about the grounds marveling at their field of barley that stretched into infinity. The Calypso Winter barley with its waist-high stalks swaying in the breeze looked like hairs wisping off an impressionist’s paintbrush. We took a hay ride to the edge of the plot and Richard let me pluck a couple kernels for taste. Plump and healthy, they burst with a sweetness like a grass jellybean. The symmetry and size of the plant suggested a yield that might exceed even Richard’s expectations. Last year the Vierzens harvested about 100,000 pounds of barley. This year the bounty could double, a win-win for Michigan’s agriculture and its craft breweries alike.

The way Danni sees it, there’s a sense of pride to incorporating locally sourced crop. “When I go drink a beer made with Mushroom Head malt, I know I am drinking something one-of-a-kind,” she said. “It has a flavor unlike anything you can buy online. The freshness that comes from buying local cannot be matched!”

Early adopters of Mushroom Head agree. The boys at Thornapple Brewing used some of their cracker malt for a SMASH (single malt and single hop) saison and were impressed by a level of quality not usually seen in our state. In another case, Gravel Bottom tinkered with their Hoppy Bliss wheat IPA recipe to include 2-row pilsner malt from Mushroom Head. Onsite expert Ben Darcie found that the malt gave the beer a bigger body and a better platform for the Michigan grown hops to shine too. “It’s an exciting reflection of where we are,” Darcie said. “It’s our soil and sun encapsulated. We’ve put Michigan in a glass.”

For now, you can find Mushroom Head malt popping up for wholesale at homebrew shops like Siciliano’s and in Michigan beers made by some of our best breweries. That said, it’s well worth the field trip to meet the Vierzens and hear their story firsthand. They’re a tight-knit family, charming and hospitable, and I’m sure they’d welcome you with open arms and beer in hand. While they continue to make a name for themselves with their exceptional product, watch as they grow like their namesake fungus.

 

Michigan is often viewed as a trailblazer when it comes to the beer industry. Other states want to be Michigan. More and more states are seeing new breweries open that value keeping their community close by supporting other local businesses. And more breweries increases the demand for crops to supply them. Pilot Malt House, an artisan craft malt house, has seen great success in Michigan and is preparing to branch out. Virginia is in need for it to support the new breweries. One of Pilot Malt House’s small business partners resides in Virginia, so it just made sense. Right now, Virginia is the wild wild west for breweries—they are essentially what Michigan was four years ago.

“We are trying to take Michigan malting to Virginia to duplicate it with Virginia grown grain. I won’t be working there or living there. It will be another branch, Pilot Virginia – we are Pilot Michigan. We aren’t trying to be big but it is a good opportunity,” states Erik May, President/Owner of Pilot Malt House.  

Pilot Malt House

An official announcement was made earlier this morning in Loudoun Country by Todd Haymore, Virginia Agriculture and Forestry Secretary, welcoming Pilot Malt House to Virginia.  

Pilot Michigan and Pilot Virginia will each be autonomous, but business functions will be funneled through Michigan. To start, malt will be produced in Michigan and shipped to Virginia for distribution until the Virginia crop is ready. Shipping will then continue for malt variants that can’t grow in Virginia. It is a great way for both Pilot Michigan and Pilot Virginia to feel secure when it comes to unexpected weather changes that can damage crops without warning.

May adds, “The beer industry is all built on relationships. If we have relationships with growers, we can lean on people there if necessary. We won’t rely on it or have it as part of daily operations, but it is good security.”

A great thing about Virginia is their Farm Brewery Law. Unlike in Michigan, resident farmers in Virginia that fall under a certain size can easily be licensed as a brewery. Typically the brewery is in a barn on the land. Pilot Virginia will be co-located on a farm with a brewery as well as the only hop processing outfit in Virginia.  

“All will be all on the same plantation. 80 acres total with 10 acres being for variety trials. What we grow here may not work there and vice versa. They do winter varieties and plant in winter and harvest it earlier. We plant in April and harvest by the end of July/early August. There will be a sharing of resources both ways,” states May.

Pilot Virginia is expected to start functioning Summer 2016.

Where does beer come from?  Much to my surprise, as well as that of Erik May, President of Pilot Malt House, many consumers really have no clue.

“Through my traveling I realized more and more that people, generally, think it just appears.  Much like a car—they buy it from a dealership and don’t think much about how it got there, [it’s the] same with the beer world.”

The beer is in their glass, it tastes delicious and the rest is history.  That very “problem” is why May started his business.

“I have talked to a lot of brewers/owners or breweries and they only know where they buy their grain from, not necessarily where that grain actually came from,” said May.  “I want to change that!”

Pilot Malt House held an event on Saturday for people from the industry to come out and learn more about where ingredients in beer come from.  After the guests gathered, a bus escorted them from the malt house down the road to a farm growing some of Pilot Malt House’s grain.  The welcoming Chad Becker, Owner of Becker Hop Farms greeted all with a smiling face.  During the introduction to the field of barley, which sat beside some hop vines, a huge Case Combine Harvester grabbed everyone’s attention immediately.  Becker briefly described the types of barley guests would come across.

Six-row barley, though not currently grown at Becker Hop Farms, is great for distillers.

“Through the distillation process, more can be pulled from the thicker, hardy barley,” explained Ryan Hamilton, Maltster at Pilot Malt House.

A two-row barley is a popular choice for breweries and fills the Becker Hop Farm’s fields.

“It isn’t the most exciting crop, but there are a lot of variables that go into growing the crop.  Only a certain amount of it can be grown at a time to give a good product.  There are a lot of unknowns right now when it comes to barley,” said Becker.

Attendees witnessed RPM Machinery demonstrating the combine harvesting the field for barley.  Every single person had their phone out witnessing the moment, awestruck by the movement of the massive machine.  After the combine harvested the field, people climbed on and under the machine to see its inner workings.  When customers are given the opportunity to touch a product and create an experience for themselves, a stronger connection is made which has a higher percentage of gaining customers than just telling them about a product.

“We are here to learn more about the crop,” said Brewer Todd Henert of Kitzingen Brewery (a brewery opening soon in Wyoming, MI).

All in all, the event was a way for current customers of Pilot Malt House to learn more about specifics that go into their beer, as well as educate those that will hopefully turn into new customers.

“This year we held the event only for industry people but in the future we hope to have one for the public,” says May.

The farm tour ended back at the Pilot Malt House with refreshments of the beer kind, a food truck, live music and new clients for Pilot Malt House.


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