SPOKANE — Monday is pizza night at the Grain Shed, and business is brisk for the co-op’s four founders and their employees.
Baker Shaun Thompson Duffy makes pizzas for the many customers, who live nearby in Spokane’s South Perry District.
Brewer Joel Williamson pours beer for them, while fellow brewer Teddy Benson helps put toppings on the pizzas and prepare them for the wood-fired oven.
What’s unique about this gathering is both the pizza and beer are made with locally grown grains. They are part of a cooperative of a handful of farmers, a baker and brewers who hope to inspire other farmers, bakers and brewers to adopt a similar model in other neighborhoods across the Pacific Northwest.
The Grain Shed cooperative’s goal is to help farmers reach the local market for their crops as an alternative to the commodity market. The landrace grains they grow go directly from the field to milling into flour for baked goods or to malting for beer.
Local is the key, co-op owners say.
“We’re trying to make a business that’s as local as we can possibly make it,” Benson, one of the brewers, said.
The co-op has 15 outside investors who each invested $5,000 to $25,000. Investors receive preferred stock, a non-voting ownership share. At the end of profitable years, they will receive a dividend based on their investment, Benson said.
Williamson, the other brewer, said the co-op needs to bring in an average of $48,000 each month to break even, and has been beating that so far in the three months it’s been operating.
He suspects part of the early success is due to baker Thompson Duffy’s following among local foodies, drawing a good breakfast and lunch crowd.
The co-op wants to show it’s possible to succeed using unique, high-quality local ingredients and sustainable growing practices, he said.
Endicott, Wash., farmer Don Scheuerman said the co-op’s partners each approach the venture from their own areas of interest.
“You have to find the right brewer, you have to find the right baker, you need the right farmer,” he said. “It’s not for the fainthearted. There’s definitely an element of risk involved. But then it’s whether you believe in it.”
Scheuerman also co-founded Palouse Heritage Grains, raising landrace grains — ancient pre-hybridized races of wheat, barley, oats, rye and other grains — along with heritage and heirloom grains.
“I don’t grow wheat or barley,” he said. “We grow pints of beer and loaves of bread, eliminating multiple margins in the supply chain.”
With no middlemen, the revenue takes a more direct route to the co-op’s bottom line.
The co-op also orders the rest of its food supplies from another farmer co-op, LINC Foods, working with more than 20 local farmers.
Scheuerman and three other Eastern Washington farmers raise grain for the Grain Shed, including rye, triticale, spelt, Khorasan wheat and soft white wheat.
The co-op uses about 13 acres of grain for the bakery and 6 acres per year for the brewery. The brewery’s grain needs should expand to 16 acres next year, and continue to grow, Williamson said. He hopes to reach at least 80 acres in the next five years.
The limited size of the bakery doesn’t allow for expansion, but beer has the potential to expand into distribution for retail, which in turn opens the door for more grain production, Scheuerman said.
He wants to transition from conventional farming practices to “more sustainable” models — “Change it acre by acre,” Scheuerman said.
The co-op pays between 75 cents to $1.25 per pound for the grains, depending on the variety, compared to the 10 to 20 cents per pound that wheat brings on the commodity market. The bakery uses 2,800 to 3,000 pounds of grain per month, and the brewery uses 1,000 pounds of malt per month.
Lind, Wash., farmer James Wahl sells food-grade rye to the co-op. The co-op pays him a higher price than he’d receive at an elevator for wheat, but it represents only a fraction of his production. It can take the co-op a long time to work through a ton of rye, he said.
Wahl was drawn to the co-op because of the founders’ commitment to “wholesome, really great” food.
“What they’re doing there is making bread not so much as a side dish but showing it as a really wonderful staple grown with humanity,” he said.
Thompson Duffy runs the Culture Breads bakery through the co-op, selling bread, pastries, sandwiches and breakfast. He estimates he sells 75 to 125 loaves per day.
Using landrace, ancient grains and “not modern” wheat makes for a unique product, bringing out the “far superior” flavor of the grain, Thompson Duffy said.
“Just to have a successful bakery-brewery, that’s my goal,” Thompson Duffy said. “We’re figuring out how to work with different grains, we’re really nailing down the oven — I think we have a pretty good grasp on it.”
The unique double-decker wood-fired oven was built on-site.
“It’s earthquake-proof, it’s not going anywhere,” he said.
Thompson Duffy wants to keep adding to the menu and find a reliable source of local meat.
Working with farmers “puts a face to the grain,” he said.
Benson is a full-time elementary teacher and a graduate student and adjunct faulty member at Whitworth University in Spokane.
Williamson divides his time between the Grain Shed and LINC Foods co-ops, where he is a co-founder and maltster.
The Grain Shed treats beer like wine, with brewers talking about the importance of growing location and environment in developing taste.
“We’re really focused on making beer designed just to showcase grain over anything else,” Benson said.
The original plan was to malt the grain on site, Williamson said, but space is limited.
The co-op plans to contract with Bellwether Brewing Co. in Spokane to produce Grain Shed beer in bigger batches for cans, bottles or kegs to be sold in local independent grocery stores.
Many breweries are concerned about the cost-effectiveness of using local malts, Benson said. The grain the co-op uses costs $1.50 per pound, compared to about $1 a pound for standard malt grain. Microbreweries generally spend 35 to 50 cents per pound for malt, he said.
“We’re feeling good about continuing to be profitable as we look at expanding our brewing operations,” he said. “I really don’t see our market going away or shrinking. I honestly think it will just increase as more and more people are becoming aware that we exist.”
Scheuerman said the Grain Shed’s most likely customer probably belongs to the 49 percent of people in Washington state who voted for mandatory labeling of food with genetically modified ingredients.
“They carry values that are in harmony with things that we are (doing),” he said.
The co-op supports small-scale farmers who focus on low chemical inputs and healthy soil. They also provide a fair wage to their employees, Benson and Scheuerman said. Williamson said the co-op strives to pay a wage of $15 per hour as the business grows.
“We continue to emphasize doing things the best way, whether or not they’re the cheapest way,” Benson said. The co-op plans to source-identify its grains and any produce and proteins it sells. Nothing will come from outside the region.
The Grain Shed still has an uphill climb, Benson said. First, its members need to educate customers about how bread and beer are made.
Then they have to explain to customers what they’re doing that’s different, and why it matters.
“There’s a lot of reasons to do what we’re doing.” Williamson said. “Luckily, it also tastes really good. That’ll help.”
The Grain Shed’s set-up is common in the U.S. and internationally, said Stephen Jones, director of Washington State University’s Bread Lab in Mount Vernon. He works with Scheuerman to find and increase the availability of rare wheats and barleys.
“If it is designed to keep value where it is produced, then that is great for a community,” Jones said. Grain Shed founders are open to sharing the model with other farmers, millers, bakers and brewers. Scheuerman said Spokane could support six grain shed-like co-ops in other neighborhoods. He also sees possibilities in the Tri-Cities, Walla Walla, Ellensburg and Seattle.
“We don’t want to become some giant empire of Grain Sheds. We’d rather help other growers and millers, bakers, brewers and maltsters figure out how to do it,” Williamson said.
The co-op’s model is probably easier for an independent, small-scale farmer who can “fight the struggles of not being well-capitalized,” Scheuerman said.
The co-founders believe their model can help grain growers stay financially viable on fewer acres.
As the cooperative grows, Williamson wants to learn if that’s actually true and whether it can help enough growers make the transition.
“Grain growers are used to very large-scale acreage and production, and what we’re doing is great, but it’s just a tiny little drop in the bucket at the moment,” he said.
Wahl, the Lind farmer, already considers the co-op a success. He recently took a group of distillers and brewers from China to taste beer and bread made with ancient grains, he said.
“I take people to the Grain Shed to broaden their ideas of what beer and bread can be,” he said.