State brewery law fueled creation of malt houses

'This industry is surging'
Malted barley.
Malted barley.

As David Salisbury tells it, Convergence Craft owes its existence to the New York Farm Brewery Bill.

The legislation, effective in 2013, created a special license for small brewers who promise to use New York-grown hops and malting barley in their beer -– at least 20 percent through 2018, then 60 percent by 2019 and 90 percent by 2024.

According to the law, beer manufactured under these guidelines would be designated as “New York State labeled beer.”

Like others, Salisbury saw an opportunity in becoming the middleman — a malt house — between farmers and brewers as the craft beverage industry took off. He jettisoned early plans for a microbrewery and instead joined with two friends and his brother to create Convergence Craft; it’s housed in an industrial park off Central Avenue in Albany.

By early this year, Convergence was among nine malt houses in New York actively purchasing grain. Before the Farm Brewery Bill, the state had no malt houses.

The businesses process raw grain under controlled conditions to release the enzymes that convert starches to sugars, which during subsequent brewing or distilling creates alcohol.

Malt houses are one piece of the developing infrastructure needed to support craft beer.

Barley to malt is another.

Few farmers grew malting barley before the Farm Brewery Bill, according to a report last year from Cornell Cooperative Extension/Harvest NY. While the report concluded that enough malting barley was being grown in the state to meet the current 20 percent sourcing requirement for craft brewers, it projected that “significantly more acreage than is currently planned” will be needed to meet the 2024 benchmark.

(Some possible assistance to farmers came last month when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that new crop insurance for malting barley will be available in 44 New York counties by 2018.)

Salisbury, head maltster at Convergence, said the acreage projections leave him scratching his head since the three growers he works with now “are supplying 10 times more than I can malt.”

Convergence plans to expand production capacity next month but the growers “will still have much more than we can handle,” he told me in an email this week.

Storage is the problem: Convergence lacks the space for big bins to hold the grain.

Salisbury said he doesn’t expect to put in bins before another expansion, which would require looking for more physical space.

“Storage issues are choking the expansion of this industry to some degree,” he said.

Salisbury has no doubt brewers will hit the higher benchmarks for New York ingredients in 2019 and 2024, since some are going beyond the required 20 percent already.

“I can say with confidence that literally all of my customers use upwards of 40 to 50 percent New York malt, even as high as 90 and some absolutely use 100 percent New York malt in their beer,” he said.

“This industry is surging, and my partners and our families are thrilled to play a part in it.”

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected].

Categories: Business, News, Opinion, Schenectady County

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