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Pilot Malt House aims to bring Michigan breweries closer to a pure Michigan brew

Located in Jenison, Michigan, Pilot Malt House seeks to provide locally grown and produced malt for breweries in Grand Rapids and beyond.

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Being able to support the local economy by drinking a beer brewed by a neighbor is just one of the perks of living in Grand Rapids. Many breweries in Grand Rapids and all over Michigan strive to locally source as many ingredients as possible, and the goal of a creating a brew from ingredients entirely Michigan-grown and -produced persists. Pilot Malt House in Jenison, Michigan is contributing to achieving this goal by making malt from scratch with ingredients grown in Michigan.

Malt is made of partially-germinated cereal grains and is a major ingredient in things like malted milk shakes, whiskey and, of course, beer.

"Malt is the 'backbone' of beer," says Erik May, co-owner of Pilot Malt House. "If the beer has color and gives you a buzz, like every beer does, it's from the malt and its interaction with the yeast, water, etc. during brewing."

May and his partner Paul Schelhaas got the idea to start a malt house after a conversation had while sipping some of Schelhaas's home brew. They discussed the geographic origins of the components of beer.

"As our discussion went from water, to yeast, to hops and finally onto malt the idea for Pilot was created," says May. "We almost immediately became obsessed and began doing small three-pound batches of malt in Paul [Schelhaas]'s kitchen and obsessively researched all facets of malting."

The malt house now supplies malt to breweries here in the Grand Rapids area, including Osgood Brewing Company and Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery and Supply, as well as other breweries in Michigan, including New Holland Brewing CompanyShorts Brewing CompanyNorth Peak Brewing Company and White Flame Brewing Company, among others. May and Schelhaas continue to reach out to breweries in the area to strengthen the connection between the agricultural and brewing processes involved in making beer. The goal of Pilot Malt House is to connect the Michigan agricultural community with the Michigan brewing and distilling communities. Currently, this relationship only exists between brewers and hops growers.

"[We] hope to, in cohorts with [the hops growers], take it to the next level by contracting with growers around the state to grow barley for our use and eventually go to the brew pub and have a pint or two with the brewer, the hops grower, the barley grower and the maltster," says May, "creating a sustainable relationship between all the parties and lessening the burden on outsourcing to other states/regions."

Pilot Malt House sources their barley from a grower in Niles, Michigan who produced 10 acres of malting barley this year and intends to grow more in the following year. Pilot plans to add three to four more growers in the coming year, which will result in 60-70 acres of Michigan-grown malting barley.

"We have networked extensively to try and build not only a growing network, but build the infrastructure to support a long-term malting barley industry here in Michigan," says May. "We've made headway, but there's always more to be done."

"Any growers interested in the opportunity are welcome to contact us, we're aren't hard to find," he says.

The most major sources of North American malting barley are Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas and the Canadian provinces on the U.S.-Canadian border. Europe is also a prominent source of the grain. Prohibition had a hand in the decline of malt producers in states like Michigan. Since then, as brew pubs continue to appear, farms that produce malting barley and hops have also been on the rise.

"In the last couple decades, obviously breweries have come back in small towns and hops farms have began to pop up all around as well," says May. "Michigan grows very small amounts of malting barley, but our climate, our soil and farmers' knowledge of how to grow small grains all support a malting barley industry."

"We hope to work with growers to establish a malting barley industry and to employ farmers with a crop that they can enjoy the 'fruits of their labor,' where large crops like soy beans and wheat are just sold off to mills with the final whereabouts never known," he says.

But locally sourced ingredients aren't all it takes to make a great Michigan brew.

"We realized very early on in our development that just being locally sourced isn't enough if the quality and consistency isn't there," says May.

While some malt producers opt to use feed barley to ensure a higher margin of profit, Pilot Malt House uses only malting barley to ensure the best quality of their product. The malt house is a licensed food grade producer with the Michigan Department of Agriculture. 

"We need to match or exceed the malt that currently exists in the marketplace, which isn't easy to do, admittedly, when the large malt houses have been doing this for decades, or longer," he says. "That said, we believe we have created the system, intuited the procedures and pieced together the equipment to offer a high-quality, consistent product."

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