Mainstem Malt has been providing breweries with craft malt — one of the three key ingredients in beer besides water, yeast and hops — since 2016, working with local, sustainable farmers to contract-malt their grains for regional brewers.

Owner Phil Neumann’s idea was always to open his own maltery, but some funding hiccups preventing that, until now. In November, after a year of planning, Port of Walla Walla commissioners voted unanimously to lease a quarter of the 200,000-square-foot former Crown Cork & Seal building to Mainstem as a malting facility, pending funding for building improvements and equipment. The initial lease covers 56,000 square feet, with an option for a 30-year lease and plenty of space for expansion.

Mainstem fits the bill for the type of business the Port is looking to partner with in a larger project to revitalize the Dell Avenue and 13th Avenue neighborhood around the warehouse.

“The Port of Walla Walla’s strategic initiatives identify the ag industry as a priority industry to support,” said Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Patrick Reay. “The Mainstem project will add value to the local and regional ag industry and growers.”

Craft malt is an up-and-coming industry as malt becomes just as important as hops to distinguish breweries in a growing craft beer market. Local maltsters are increasing in number across the country, and new research is showing that grains, like wine grapes, have their own terroir.

“Walla Walla’s unique geography will offer a playful interaction between wine culture and the development of grain’s own form of terroir,” said Neumann, whose malt is used in about 30 breweries and distilleries across the West, including several of Walla Walla Valley brews.

Mainstem puts a sustainable twist on this by sourcing the wheat and barley needed for malting from salmon-safe and dry-land farmers, including H.T. Rea Farms in Milton-Freewater and Johns Ranch in Athena, Oregon.

“Our novel approach to supply-chain management and grain tracking has enabled custom malting from specific grain lots, down to a single varietal, crop year, farmer, and field,” said Neumann, who was trained in malting at the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre in Winnipeg, Canada, and has a master’s degree in water resources management from Oregon State University.

Neumann started the business working from home and out of downtown’s Emberfuel co-working space, but opened office space in the Dell Avenue building in March. Mainstem has hired five employees besides Neumann and his wife, Alyssa, who works full-time as Oregon Tilth’s communications coordinator and is transitioning to the role of Mainstem’s communications manager. They hope to hire six full-time employees with some part-time to begin, and with the potential for 15 or more employees at full build.

Malting grains creates the different flavor variations in beers by taking the grains almost to sprouting then drying and roasting them. Similar to toasting a piece of bread, grains can be roasted to different degrees for different depths of flavor. Malting is typically done in large, stainless-steel drums. Mainstem’s malting system will include five malting drums that each turn 22,000 pounds of barley into malt every five to six days, with expansion capacity.

Neumann is still in the fundraising stage but hopes to start production sometime this year.

“We are actively seeking additional community investors to help us close our fundraise and move forward on solid footing,” he said. “Mainstem has been working for four and a half years to bring this project to fruition. We have what I believe to be an industry leading market position and project plan, and capital will be the finishing touch.”

They’re also looking for future neighbors in the space they currently share with Artifex Wine Company.

“My vision is definitely a vibrant fermentation and food complex, complete with malting/brewing/distilling/winemaking/milling/baking and a Mainstem taproom on Dell,” Neumann said.

This vision is shared by the Port, which has plans to create a Warehouse District and lease space to Walla Walla Foundry and Refresco, a bottling company.

“When completed, the Warehouse District will be seen as a vibrant redevelopment area that encourages new private investment, entrepreneurship and job creation,” reads the Port’s vision for the space, according to a recent presentation. “Most importantly, the Warehouse District will give the neighborhoods a sense of identity and hope.”

Catie Joyce-Bulay is a freelancer writing about craft ingredients, travel and whatever strikes her fancy. Connect with her on Twitter @catiejoycebulay.

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