Demand grows for heirloom, other specialty grains
Experts say Cascadia region 'North America's answer to Great Britain'
By STEVE BROWN
TACOMA, Wash. -- Grain: It isn't just for bread anymore.
Brewers, distillers and livestock producers are all looking for barley, wheat and other grains that can be grown west of the Cascade Mountains.
Cascadia, also called the Salish Coast Region, stretches from Eugene, Ore., north to British Columbia. The area's population centers and growing conditions make for a sustainable economy, a possibility discussed at the Cascadia Grains Conference.
"This is one of six places on Earth with this climate," said Wayne Carpenter, founder of Skagit Valley Malting and Brewing Co.
West Side conditions make for a lower-protein barley, whose malt is prized by microbrewers because it creates a clear brew with more flavor differences. Great Britain has been the source of low-protein barley malt, but Carpenter said he has been told that "the Salish Coast Region could be North America's answer to Great Britain."
With the area's 135 craft breweries, more than 60 craft distilleries are ready to tap into the local-food trend, creating whiskey, vodka, gin and a variety of liqueurs.
Interest is also growing in heirloom grains. Dennis Gilliam, executive vice president for sales and marketing at Bob's Red Mill Natural Foods in Milwaukie, Ore., defined heirloom as "something that hasn't been genetically modified and can be traced back quite a ways."
Bob's has found a ready market for such crops as einkorn, emmer, kamut, teff, quinoa and amaranth. Even chia, best known as a decorative plant, was for centuries used as a "superfood" by the Aztecs.
"People are looking for what's new, even if it's old," Gilliam said.
Specialty grains are popular for their nutritional value, their uniqueness and their "story," he said. Building on those assets calls for new ways to grow, handle and store grain, working with smaller quantities and precise qualities.
"But we need a consistent supply," he said. "We have the market for it. I challenge you to work with us."
Demand for gluten-free products is also building. Jim Kropf, of Julie's Gluten-Free Bakery in Puyallup, Wash., said the bakery opened its doors five months ago and has grown since.
People seek out gluten-free food because they feel better when they eat it, they lose weight or their doctors suggested it.
Alternatives to wheat flour include oats, millet, sorghum, almond, potato, corn, chickpea, rice, tapioca and heirloom grains.
Like organic food used to be, there is no certification process for gluten-free foods yet, he said.
Of the 400 products at Bob's Red Mill, 70 are gluten-free, Gilliam said. All grains are cleaned, inspected and tested and processing is done at a separate facility.
"The world is hungry for it," he said. "It's no longer just for people with celiac."