How local is your local beer? What about your local whiskey? Maybe it was produced nearby — but did its ingredients come from near, or far? Probably far. But Sugar Creek Malt Co., a malthouse in Lebanon, Indiana, is starting to change that.
Sugar Creek malts grains that were grown within 200 miles for use in beer and whiskey. Owner Caleb Michalke is reviving a part of the "drink local" movement that has been dead in Indiana since Prohibition.
Cardinal Spirits was Sugar Creek's first distillery customer. Sugar Creek supplies malted barley for our White Oak Whiskey, which is unaged. That malt is cooked, fermented and distilled on-site at the distillery, resulting in one of the most easy-drinking and flavorful unaged whiskeys we've ever tasted.
Let's learn more about Sugar Creek from Caleb:
CARDINAL: What happens at a malthouse, anyway?
CALEB: We bring in barley, wheat and rye, and whatever grain a brewer or distiller needs. We get it wet, let it germinate, dry it and toast it to get different flavors in the end product. Grain coming straight out of the field is just starch, so we have to germinate it to produce enzymes that break down into sugars.
Where does the grain that you malt come from?
We're trying to keep all the grain this year within a 200-mile radius of the malthouse, which is in Lebanon, Indiana. Then we can really monitor what's going on and know how it's grown, and we're not trucking grain in from Montana or Canada. We've made relationships with a handful of farmers who are wanting to try something different. A lot of the farmers I have growing for me are doing 10 or 20 acres, and some are doing 50 acres.
How did you get into malting?
I grew up on a farm just a mile away from where the malthouse is now. I went to college for agriculture, and wanted to do developmental agriculture, going into third world countries. I tried to do that for a little while, but I really couldn't find a steady income.
I wanted to get into the brewing /distilling industry but didn't want to open a brewery — I wanted to stay on the ag side of it. Nobody was really doing this.
All the barley research and breeding has been done for North Dakota, Montana and Canada so there really hasn't been any barley breeding in Indiana.
Now that we're up and going, we have 11 farmers growing for us and now there's a market for barley to be grown again (in the Midwest).
What's your family's farm like?
It's a hog and grain operation. We've always grown corn and soybeans. We really did not do small grains until last year when we experimented with barley. It's a new venture for everyone.
What's the advantage of malting on a small scale?
If you get a bag of grain from me, I can tell you exactly what farm it came from. When you get it from North Dakota, it's from many farms all mixed in. We're doing 2-ton batches. When I was up in Canada (to take a malting course), we were doing 200-ton batches. We are very small. Just like with craft brewing and distilling, we can play around with different flavors.
What can you tell us about the barley for Cardinal's White Oak Whiskey?
It's a six-row barley — Thoroughbred is the name, bred from a French and US variety. It was grown in Kentucky, then malted here.
Cardinal is going to be getting some rye soon. The rye we have this year was grown on my family farm. It's called Aroostook, and it's an heirloom variety from the New England area with a spicy rye flavor. We're really excited about getting that out into some beer and rye whiskey.
What's next for you?
We're planning on doing a Kickstarter to build a smokehouse. I think that's going to be a really unique feature. We've got all kinds of wood — pear, peach, apple, pecan and lilac — and we're going to do a whole line of custom-smoked batches. At the same time we're building a roasting drum that'll let us do chocolate malt to make porters and stouts.
I'm hoping to get to a million pounds of malt — I'd like to sell that in a year. That'll allow us to supply a lot of breweries with a year-round local beer, instead of just doing a harvest beer.