When Austin Schumacher, co-founder of TexMalt in Fort Worth, started getting really geeky about beer, he naturally began to wonder how local his local brews really were.
Were the grains from Texas farms? Nope, usually from Canada or Europe.
"The only thing that was local was the water," he says.
Schumacher and friend Chase Leftwich, now both 28, set out to change that. They launched TexMalt in 2015, sourcing grains from Texas farms and malting them specifically for craft breweries and distilleries.
They now work with more than 30 farms and supply grains -- malting barley, wheat, rye and triticale -- for a handful of clients, including Balcones Distilling in Waco, Franconia Brewing Co. in McKinney, and the Collective Brewing Project in Fort Worth.
But finding Texas grain was not an easy task.
"When we started researching malting, the biggest hurdle in why there are no local malt houses is because there weren't widely grown local sources of malting barley," Schumacher says.
For many farmers in Texas, malting barley hasn't necessarily been a cash crop since Prohibition. Only about 30,000 acres of barley were growing in Texas, and most of it was used for livestock feed, according to Texas A&M AgriLife.
"We both went to Texas Tech and had exposure to the farming community up there," Schumacher says. "We thought, 'Surely as big as the Texas farming community is, somebody can figure this out.'"
They consulted various researchers who've conducted trials on the best grain varieties for Texas, and they discovered that malting barley tends to grow best in cooler, drier climates such as the Texas Panhandle and North Central Texas.
Schumacher and Leftwich then found farmers who were already growing wheat as part of their crop rotation, and they talked them into trying malting barley instead, which can be sold as a premium product.
One farmer they work with is Lance Helberg, 29, of Rocking H/Tomahawk Farms in Lohn. He's a second-generation farmer who works with his father, Ronnie, growing wheat, canola and field peas. He studied agronomy and entomology at Texas A&M and worked at various companies before deciding to come back to the land with his dad.
"We really wanted to find a niche market, and that's where the barley came in," Helberg says.
They started with a small field (about 275 acres) of malting barley -- specifically spring two-row barley -- which "yielded quite nicely," he says. It fetches a premium, more than double what they get from wheat, so Helberg hopes things keep growing. He's also playing with other varieties that are cold-tolerant and grow longer.
"Like everyone else, I want to know where my food comes from," Helberg says. "And it's cool to drink a beer now and think, 'Oh, I grew that barley.'"
If you're wondering about hops used in brewing, that's a different story. Hops are tough to grow in Texas, and only a few people are trying it in very small batches, not enough to supply the craft brewing industry.
Custom and creative
Schumacher and Leftwich began their beer careers as many do -- with homebrewing. Then they became more interested in the malting process and attended a malting academy in Canada. They also learned through "a lot of trial and error," Schumacher says.
The team at TexMalt processes about 6,000 pounds of grains twice a week, all of which go through a traditional three-step "floor malting" process. The grains are first steeped in vats for two days where they "wet and rest," Schumacher says. This increases the moisture content so that the grains start growing.
The grains are then drained and spread out onto the warehouse floor (hence the very literal term "floor malting"), where they wait a few days for germination.
"What we're doing is tricking the seed into thinking it's spring so it'll start sprouting," Schumacher says.
The sprouting process converts starches into sugar, which is required to make alcohol. After three days, the grains are "fully modified" and then move to a kiln, where they are cured for 20 to 24 hours and dried back out.
"This is where we can get creative with flavors and recipes," Schumacher says.
Schumacher loves experimenting and working with breweries such as The Collective Brewing Project.
Ryan Deyo, founder and head brewer at Collective, has been working with TexMalt for about a year. Before working with a local malter, Deyo sourced malted grains from Europe, mostly Germany.
"TexMalt made us a pilsner malt, for the many Belgian styles that we do, that was close to or better than malts we've found from Germany or Belgium," Deyo says.
Lately, Deyo and Schumacher have been conceptualizing a beer from the ground up based on the malt.
"Grains sourced from Texas are going to have a completely different flavor profile and characteristics," Schumacher says, "for brewers and distillers who are looking for something unique that they can be creative with."
Chefs have been able to source produce and meat locally for some time now, and that's bleeding over into the brewing industry, Deyo says. He makes it a point to source other ingredients locally if possible, such as peaches and other fruits, and they ferment their own yeast.
"It's also a way we can put money back into the local economy and the local farm economy," Deyo says.