It’s no secret that the Pacific Northwest is one of the best places to live for those who like to drink good beer. If you count up the breweries in our four most serious beer cities—Portland, Bend, Seattle, and Bellingham—you’ll have counted at least 250 companies. But perhaps less well-known is that the Pacific Northwest is also one of the best places to grow the ingredients that make good beer. Three-quarters of the nation’s hops are grown in the Yakima Valley, and Washington is among a small handful of states that together grow three-quarters of the nation’s barley.
Although much of that homegrown barley is produced east of the Cascades, those of us in the northwest corner of the state are increasingly drinking beer that started its life in the fertile farmlands of Skagit County. In order to get that grain into shape for brewing, though, it has to be malted—i.e., steeped in water and allowed to germinate for a bit, before it gets dried and sent to brewers. The partial germination allows the brewers to access the starches inside the grain, which are converted to sugar and then eventually to alcohol during the brewing process. Since commercial breweries aren’t outfitted to do the malting themselves, they have to rely on maltsters. This is one more area where Skagit County shines, since it is home to Skagit Valley Malting in Burlington, our own local maltster that malts locally grown grain and then sells it to local brewers.
Many local breweries have taken advantage of having a world-class malting company in their backyard, but Farmstrong Brewing Co. in Mount Vernon has taken the local mindset and applied it across the board. All of their beers contain some percentage of barley that was grown and malted locally. As of this year, their two top-selling beers—La Raza Ambar and Cold Beer Pilsner—are made with 100% Skagit Valley malt. Making the switch to locally grown and locally malted grains wasn’t easy, and head brewer Thane Tupper spent many hours tweaking the recipes to get them dialed in. Farmstrong’s head of sales and marketing, Clay Christofferson, says, “There were batches we had to dump and there were batches we had to call a different thing, because they came out different. We wanted them to taste exactly how people had come to expect.”
In the end, though, using local grain just made sense. Not only did it help Farmstrong reduce their carbon footprint (they are only 6 miles down the road from Skagit Valley Malting), but it also fit with their broader ethos as a company. As Christofferson puts it: “If we’re going to be called ‘Farmstrong,’ we think it’s important to support the local community and the local farmers.” Not only does most of their grain come from Skagit Valley farmers, it also goes back to Skagit Valley farmers once they’re done with it, to be fed to animals on local dairy and pig farms.
The Pacific Northwest is rightfully proud of its reputation as a world-class producer of hops, but what Farmstrong and many other local breweries are beginning to realize is that this area of the country has everything you need to make excellent beer. And, in my opinion, that’s everything you need, period.
For more content like this, check out our Wine, Spirits, Brew section.