Beer Scout: Craft Malt Conference brings industry insiders together in Asheville

TO THE FOREFRONT: The Craft Malt Conference makes its Asheville debut Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 3-4. Riverbend Malt House co-founder Brent Manning, left, helped bring the event to Western North Carolina.
TO THE FOREFRONT: The Craft Malt Conference makes its Asheville debut Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 3-4. Riverbend Malt House co-founder Brent Manning, left, helped bring the event to Western North Carolina. Photo by Scott Douglas

Of the four key ingredients necessary to make beer, malted grain has long been the unsung hero. While brewers and consumers alike can be swayed by the sex appeal of a new hops variety or a particularly interesting yeast strain, attention to malt has arguably been a tertiary concern.

That state of affairs is changing rapidly, and Asheville’s Riverbend Malt House is leading the charge. In conjunction with the Craft Maltsters Guild, Riverbend will bring the annual Craft Malt Conference to Asheville for the first time on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 3-4, at the A-B Tech Conference Center.

“For us as craft maltsters, we see this as a huge opportunity to present craft malt in the scope of a beer rollout as just as important if not more so than the hops, so it’s on us to tell a more compelling narrative about why that’s the case,” says Riverbend co-founder Brent Manning.

This is the first year that the Craft Malt Conference has fully embraced a trade show format, plus it’s the event’s debut at a venue in the Southeast U.S. The gathering has its roots in the Farmer Brewer Winter Weekend, a conference for brewers, farmers and maltsters previously hosted at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. Hartwick is home of the Hartwick College Center for Craft Food and Beverage, an organization that has provided valuable product testing data for Riverbend.

According to Manning, the Craft Malt Conference is intended to focus on education and networking for not only craft brewers and distillers, but also maltsters, farmers, academics and scientists. This year’s conference will include lectures on everything from changes in malting technologies and brewing and distilling sciences to genetics and seasonally specific barley varieties. The shift in location will allow researchers and industry professionals from the Southeast to contribute their work to the body of knowledge established in the conference’s Northeast U.S. origins.

“As you might imagine, in the Northeast we pulled a lot of people from the Northeast. So you had researchers from Cornell, Vermont, University of Maine presenting their work at previous events,” explains Manning. With the conference happening in the Southeast, professors from universities including N.C. State and Virginia Tech will speak about topics such as the malting process, barley production in the Southeast, new varieties and more, he says. “So I think that’s going to be really cool to see evolve as we move from region to region.”

Also new to this year’s event will be an expanded focus on the business end of malting, with lectures on the real-world costs of using craft malt and the marketing opportunities available to brands looking to differentiate their products in a crowded marketplace. Asheville-based craft beer consultant Audra Gaiziunas will participate in a discussion of the true cost of craft malt in a finished beer, while Manning will be joined by Sean Lily Wilson from Fullsteam Brewery of Durham and April Smith of Charlotte-based Social Ape Marketing to discuss branding and marketing strategies.

“The industry needs this level of information to make businesses stronger,” says Manning. “A lot of guys are starting out or one to two years deep. And just like brewing, they’re coming from other jobs that most likely were not CPAs and MBAs, so I think that’s going to be a really beneficial thing for the attendees. I think the marketing and branding side is something that everybody can always learn about and do better.”

The trade show portion of the conference will feature products geared toward all aspects of craft beverage production, from start to finish.  Manufacturers such as Deutsche Beverage Technology will showcase brewery systems, and the 150-year-old A.T. Farrell Co. will display seed cleaning equipment among many other opportunities for attendees to learn about the latest technological advancements in the sector. The idea, according to Manning, is to connect new businesses entering the field with more experienced and entrenched organizations.

“This has grown from a gathering of 20 people to a gathering of 200 people,” he points out. “Craft malting, in general, has gone from four of five people in the entire country to over 70 producing members and another hundred in planning.

“There’s a tremendous movement here, and it’s an exciting thing to be a part of,” he adds. “We’ve got this really cool, really intimate global group of people making malt a couple of tons at a time. It’s cool to see the global craft beer movement through the eyes of a maltster.”

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