As the craft brewing industry sees unprecedented growth in Michigan, the industries that feed it are also seeing growth. Perhaps most notable is the hops industry, with growers popping up and banding together throughout the state.
Erik May and business partner Paul Schelhaas are focusing on a new sector: malting. Last summer, May and Schelhaas, a homebrewer, decided they wanted to get into the beer business.
“We wanted to be original and didn't think we had the time and money to start a brewery," May said. "With the limited ingredients in beer and more hops being grown in Michigan, malt seemed natural."
May said their new company, Pilot House Malt, sources as many regional ingredients as possible, although some of its grains come from North Dakota. Pilot House hopes to use all-Michigan ingredients within two years.
"There's a market opportunity," May said. "We see a position that we're in a good spot to build."
Local brewers want to buy local to support the economy and save money, and local "craft" malters offer a quality that is hard to come by with factory malt houses.
Although May and Schelhaas are currently working out of Schelhaas’ house and have yet to supply breweries, there is an active malt house located just southeast of Mount Pleasant. Michigan Malt Co. is quickly building a name for itself in the state. It is forming a partnership with Empire Hops Farm, the largest hops grower in the state, to help stabilize the brewing supply chain.
"When we started, I wanted to make a malt that (brewers) thought was good enough to use," said Wendall Banks, Michigan Malt owner. "The result is I make the best malt on the planet — the reason being is it’s fresh. The flavor is just incredible."
He said breweries might bring in malts from all over the world, and often they sit around for months before they are used. Michigan Malt can deliver its product in just a few days.
In early April, Saugatuck Brewing Co. released an all-Michigan-made summer beer, Michigan Wheat Ale, made from Michigan Malt Co. malt and Empire Hops Farm hops.
"The response has been overwhelming," Banks said. "We're swamped right now."