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Saving John Barleycorn

North Carolina’s Riverbend Malt House is connecting local farmers and regional craft brewers—with malt.

riverbend malt house north carolina

By Rob Story | Photographs Johnny Autry

Before the Riverbend Malt House launched in 2010, there was nothing connecting North Carolina barley farmers and the region’s ever-growing craft beer scene. In fact, most Carolina-grown barley gets fed to (horrors) livestock. That dynamic inspired Riverbend’s co-founders, Brent Manning and Brian Simpson, who promptly set out to end the craft beer industry’s reliance on the global commodities market, along with its supersized carbon footprint. Think of the malt house as the middleman between the raw material for suds and those who concoct suds.

When the economy tanked in 2009, Manning and Simpson left their day jobs as environmental consultants and got into booze, largely because it’s both delicious and recession-proof. They didn’t have to invent anything. Riverbend’s malting process originated in the 18th century: First, four tons of raw barley kernels are steeped in 1,500-gallon tanks until they begin to germinate. Then, the grain is spread across the germination floor—as brewers have done since beer’s invention—and occasionally turned with old-timey three-pronged rakes. Finally, Riverbend dries and kilns the green malt, which halts the germination process, preserving the starches and sugars—this becomes the building blocks for beer. Varying the moisture content and kiln time allows Riverbend to produce the ideal flavor and color characteristics their award-winning North Carolina brewers—Newgrass, Twin Leaf, and Hi-Wire—desire. Carolina farmers also win because Riverbend preorders its grain before growing season, safeguarding against market volatility.

Then there’s the eco angle: Manning estimates that local malting reduces carbon emissions by 4.5 tons for every truckload of grain. That fact, along with Riverbend’s artisanal product, proved attractive to Asheville’s newest player, New Belgium, the fourth largest brewer in the country.

Now, when the Riverbend duo cracks open a six-pack of New Belgium RyePA, it tastes like victory.

From our High Summer 2016 issue.

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