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Malted barley company rides ‘perfect storm’ to expansion

Pilot Malt House announces partnership with larger brewing supply company to distribute product outside of Michigan.

December 2, 2016
| By Pat Evans |
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Pilot Malt House
Pilot Malt and its partners planted 10 acres of barley in 2012. This year, that number has ballooned to 2,500 acres of barley and another 500 acres of other grains. Courtesy Pilot Malt House

Michigan-grown and malted barley, and other grains, soon could be in the hands of thousands of brewers across the country.

Byron Center-based Pilot Malt House announced recently it has partnered with one of the world’s largest brewing supply companies, Country Malt Group, to help distribute its malted barley outside of Michigan’s borders. Pilot has been shipping its malt to customers across the globe, but the company’s 300 or so customers began to be too much for co-founder Erik May, who leads the sales effort.

Malted barley is a key ingredient in the beer- and spirits-making process.

May said discussions between the two companies began almost exactly a year prior to the partnership becoming official. The partnership has no financial ties.

“It’s a play that they see the craft malting industry being legitimate and trying to assist that and being a partner and growing our geographic (reach),” May said. “They do logistics a lot better than we do, so we’re excited about that piece of it. You can make the best malt in the world, but if it doesn’t get where it needs to be, what good is that?”

With the help of Country Malt Group, Pilot’s bags of malt can be added to pallets of grain for more than 4,500 breweries across the U.S. Immediately, May said Country Malt Group became the maltster’s largest customer, as it took a large chunk of available inventory.

Country Malt Group has approximately 20 different malt suppliers, all with their own catalog of products, said Christopher Seitz, eastern division sales manager for Country Malt Group. Seitz said a typical brewery might order three pallets of grain and have 20 different malts or just a handful.

The interest from Country Malt Group in Pilot came from its desire to help “support, nurture and encourage” growth of the craft malt community, and Pilot is one of the leaders in the segment, Seitz said.

“Every brewery is as different from the next in terms of styles, sophistication and recipes they brew,” Seitz said.

Malts come in a variety of types, and May said brewers are more apt to experiment now as shelves become crowded with products. He said their original malt types, such as Peanut Butter Toast, can add value to a pallet of base malt from Country Malt Group.

“(Country Malt Group) sees a movement for small artisanal, and it’s about what the craft beer was built on, unique flavors, their value added is a true craft brand in their portfolio,” May said.

Seitz said the first thing a customer asks at a brewery or distillery tasting room is, “What’s new, interesting or local?” and using a malt unlike the ones available from large malting companies can help further sell a beer or spirit.

“Every brewer is looking for that field-to-glass story,” he said. “If a brewer has a ready answer, that gets the hooks deeper.”

Pilot was founded in 2012 and partnered with Michigan barley growers to have 10 acres planted. This year, Pilot and its partner farms had 2,500 acres of barley and 500 acres of other grains, such as rye, planted throughout the state.

May expects those numbers to grow significantly again next year as planning begins now. He said last November, Pilot shipped out 15,000 pounds of malt, and this year, it’s at 150,000 pounds.

“We’re 10 times bigger than last year, and this partnership will get us to places we can’t go,” May said.

Pilot announced an expansion into Virginia, which has run into roadblocks to begin malting. Until a new Virginia location is up and running, Virginia-grown malt is being malted in Michigan and sent back to breweries and distilleries in Virginia.

The small beverage supply chain company always has had large aspirations, but May said it’s coming a lot quicker than he imagined. He knows craft malt is similar to craft beer, in it won’t surpass market share of large malting companies, but it still has a ways to grow its customer base.

“I’d be lying if I said I fully expected all of this,” May said. “Our malt quality has improved dramatically, and we have some legitimacy for names we’re working with. It’s a perfect storm. I certainly didn’t think we’d be here a couple of years after starting it.”

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