Great Western expanding its operations at the Port of Vancouver

Malt supplier nimbly moves to accommodate the ever-growing craft beer industry, both locally and beyond the Northwest

By Brooks Johnson, Columbian Business Reporter

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Brewing in Vancouver

Vancouver has had its hand in brewing since before it was a city.

Vancouver Brewery was established in 1857 during the days of Fort Vancouver. Henry Weinhard -- of eventual Portland brewery fame -- operated the brewery for a few years before selling to Anton Young, who changed the name to Star Brewery sometime before 1890. The main brew rolling out of that plant was the Hop Gold Export Beer.

Star, later named Interstate Brewery and Lucky Lager Brewing, would eventually start turning out the famed Lucky Lager, whose sign would come to define Vancouver's downtown until 1995.

Today, Clark County has about 20 breweries, not to mention a 120,000-ton-per-year malting company.

Sources: Columbian archives and brewerygems.com

Vancouver isn’t recognized for contributing to the rise of craft beer. But it should be.

“If you have a beer in Portland, there’s an 80 percent chance it’s made with our malt,” said Mike O’Toole, president of Great Western Malting Co. at the Port of Vancouver.

Since 1934, Great Western’s grain silos and towers have been a part of Vancouver’s western skyline and a major source of malt for brewers around the country. Today, the company is growing — along with the bellies of all those craft-beer lovers.

“The most significant place we’re growing is expanding warehouses because of the craft beer boom,” O’Toole said. “The plant today is predominantly craft beer.”

When Sunlight Supply moves into its new headquarters next year, Great Western will take over its 90,000-square-foot space at the port. It also will add a faster bagging line and make room for its increasingly diverse line of malts — and a new in-house nanobrewery will foster even more specialty products from the malthouse to brewers.

Though overall U.S. beer production ticked down slightly last year, the $22 billion national craft-beer industry grew nearly 13 percent, according to the Brewers Association. And since those hearty brews use three times as much malt as, say, Budweiser, the demand for malted barley is as strong as ever.

“As micro grows up, macro scales back,” O’Toole said. “It’s not a matter of how much is being sold — but who I’m selling to.”

Preferences

Anonymous train cars carry amber waves of grain from faraway fields to a cluster of tracks at the Port of Vancouver. In total, 120,000 tons of barley, wheat and rye are dropped off at Great Western every year to await their malted destiny in amber pints of ale.

Malting is an ancient process that unlocks the simple sugars in grain, allowing brewers to access that sugar and ferment it into the bubbly suds we consume. Put simply, it involves sprouting and drying grains in an energy-intensive process.

“We use a lot of water and a lot of natural gas,” O’Toole said.

Most beer is made with water, yeast, hops and malted barley. While some styles will vary the yeast (Belgians) or hops (India pale ales) to achieve a desired flavor, it is the malt that is the sweetness, the body, the color and the overall backbone of the beer.

“We pick different specialty grains for different flavors,” said Rodney Stryker, head brewer and co-owner of Vancouver’s Heathen Brewing. “It’s like different ingredients going into a stew. Everyone’s got their preference.”

Those preferences — just look at a tap list these days — have pushed Great Western’s Vancouver plant to expand from a few base malts to 32 varieties of malted grain. From organic 2-row to Munich and Vienna malts to degrees of crystal malts, the company makes possible a whole spectrum of beers.

Beyond steeping, germinating, kilning and possibly roasting those malts, the plant’s 125 employees make sure all the different products are stored separately, O’Toole said. The cornucopia of offerings require a lot of space, as well, which led to Great Western taking over the entirety of a 120,000-square-foot warehouse on Kotobuki Way once shared with Sunlight Supply, tripling the malthouse’s space.

It’s just part of the company’s incremental growth driven by the changing beer industry.

“By feel … that’s the way we’re growing,” O’Toole said.

Though the company’s biggest customers are still big breweries, Great Western’s craft adaptation started decades ago, when a few microbreweries started shaking up American palates and consumer demand.

“I remember specifically how the craft-beer scene changed the beer industry, and Great Western had to change with them,” said Bryan Shull, owner of Vancouver’s Trap Door Brewing and the son and grandson of Great Western retirees. “Yellow beer was losing market share. They had to experiment with their malts, and I remember them talking about having to change.”

Shull, 46, interned at Great Western while his grandfather was a foreman. His own son, Zane Singleton, is head brewer at Uptown Village’s Trap Door.

“We’re fourth-generation Vancouver beer,” he said. “We use Great Western for loyalty, quality and location.”

Shull uses 99 percent Great Western products at his 6-month-old brewery “as a matter of policy” and estimates many brewers in the region buy from their local malter, as well.

“They have most of the things we need,” Shull said.

Steve Bader, owner of Bader Beer & Wine Supply in Vancouver, said Great Western smartly positioned itself to be that kind of supplier.

“Great Western simply did a smart thing and moved their business model from selling virtually all their malt to a very few megabrewers at very low margins to one of selling virtually all their malt to a large number of small brewers at very healthy margins,” he said.

The finished product

Vancouver’s newest brewery doesn’t have a catchy name, and bottles brewed there won’t be hitting store shelves anytime soon, but it could very well change the craft-beer landscape in coming years.

The Malt Innovation Center is Great Western’s own nanobrewery, complete with digital controls and tracking systems to study and experiment with malts in their finished form.

“Our goal is to be as innovative as our customers,” said Teri Fahrendorf, the center’s manager and a craft brewer since 1988.

The one-barrel nanobrewery is designed to help Great Western test new specialty malts, which can vary in color, sweetness and depth, depending on a variety of processes. It can also give customers the chance to try out new products or get data on them before making an investment.

“You’re superstitious about raw ingredients,” she said. “This will provide an understanding of the process to learn about the raw material.”

Of course, the beers produced at the shiny new facility connected to Great Western’s recently reconstructed break room won’t be hop-heavy; these beers are all about the malts.

“Employees don’t always get to see or taste the finished product,” O’Toole said, but this way they can be on the cutting edge of beermaking — drinking off-site, of course.

Eventually, the innovation center plans to host a mini-distillery — since malt is also used in spirits — and a malt and beer school, where brewers can grow their craft.

For Fahrendorf, who spent two decades as a brewmaster and was called by Shull the “queen of craft beer,” it’s another chance to grow the industry she loves.

“I’d be jealous of my job if I didn’t have it,” she said.

‘Increasingly diverse’

Great Western Malting Co. opened following the repeal of Prohibition in the 1930s, and production has been continuous since.

Though it’s headquartered in Vancouver today — with a plant in Pocatello, Idaho, that mainly serves large breweries and plans to double in size soon — the company is actually owned by Graincorp, a giant Australian firm.

“The malted barley world is dominated by a small number of very large international companies,” said homebrew supplier Bader. “The overriding theme the past 25 years I have been in the industry has been constant consolidation.”

Since buying the company in 2009, Graincorp has been kind to Great Western’s Vancouver operations, Bader said, including the addition of a malt roaster that expanded the company’s craft offerings and gives Great Western an edge over rivals.

“This has been a great move in my opinion, as the management is now more involved in the local community, and they are also expanding all of their divisions of the company,” Bader said.

Great Western has bought a few companies itself: Country Malt Group in 2008 and Brewcraft USA in 2010, which cater to small breweries and homebrewers, respectively.

“Since that time, Great Western has hired many new employees in the Vancouver area to expand the entirety of their now all-encompassing group of companies serving the beer world,” Bader said.

Though craft beer is just 12 percent of the U.S. market, it uses more than a third of all malted barley produced, according to the national Brewers Association. And growth in variety and production is the name of the game from here.

“The high number of brewing companies and number of craft brands means that continued innovation … will be fueled by an increasingly diverse barley malt supply,” reads a report from the Brewers Association. “This diversity presents challenges, as well as opportunities, for wholesalers and retailers, and unprecedented choice for beer consumers. The U.S. beer market is arguably the most diverse on Earth.”

In a sunlit corner of Trap Door Brewing hangs a painting of Great Western’s great towers, a symbol of owner Shull’s heritage and an homage to the brewery’s largest single supplier.

On a day off from brewing last week, Shull flipped through photos of Great Western’s early years. With his sons as co-owners, he said Vancouver beers made with Vancouver malts are here to stay.

“This is legacy.”