Christensen adds malt distribution to his family's century-old farm operation
By ANNA WILLARD
McMINNVILLE, Ore. -- As the fourth generation on his family's farm, Zach Christensen, 32, knows that to stay in business, he has to do something different and find a way to add value to his family's products.
"Don't do what everybody else has done the way everybody else has done it," Christensen said.
Christensen and his family plan to make that statement a reality by supplying craft brewers in the Pacific Northwest with small batches of malt. Malt is germinated barley that provides starches that are converted to sugar and then alcohol in the brewing process. It also lends color and flavor to the final product.
Initially, they plan to produce between 300 and 500 tons of malt annually.
"We haven't tried selling anything yet, we're still trying to refine the (malting) process and go out the door with a number one product," Christensen said.
Anders Johansen serves as an adviser on the project. He has been involved in the brewing industry for approximately 20 years, and is helping create that number one product.
After being approached by brewers and distillers about small batches of malt, Christensen found that no one really offers that service for craft brewers, and identified a niche market.
According to the Brewers Association, the growing ranks of craft brewers have pushed the number of breweries in the U.S. from under 100 just 30 years ago to more than 1,500 today.
"In the days of yore, breweries would have their own malting facilities," Johansen said.
Now, the barley used by many brewers is produced to the specifications of large brewing operations. Craft brewers are looking for other flavor profiles and, unless brewers are willing to pay a surcharge for malt from England or other European countries, they are getting what larger breweries use, Johansen explained.
The type of barley used in beer can make a big difference in the flavor and the color of the final product. Larger brewers use a six-row variety of barley, while craft brewers prefer the two-row variety. The six-row barley has an enzyme capacity that is better suited to using adjuncts like corn or rice, which lighten the flavor and the color of the beer.
"Two-row has a better yield and better flavor profile," Johansen said.
Christensen is also receiving guidance from Johansen on setting up the malting facility on his family's property near McMinnville.
Aside from the malt project, Christensen and his family raise 3,000 acres of hazelnuts, grass seed, small grains, clover, specialty vegetable seeds and flax. The Christensens' family farm was established in 1902 and is registered as an Oregon Century Farm. Naturally, a career in agriculture was in his blood.
The family is trying to diversify as much as possible to make sure they don't get "pinched by the market," Christensen said. "We are trying to be proactive, not reactive, in the market."
When the operation is passed to him, Christensen wants to make sure the farm remains viable by creating opportunities that will allow him to pass it to his children.
Producers have to be open-minded enough to make a shift and try something new. It is for this reason, Johansen said, that Christensen is a good example of the new wave of young agriculturists.
"Redefine it and make it your own," is Christensen's advice to the next generation. That is exactly what he plans on doing with this project.