Deer Creek Malthouse: Bringing locally-grown malt back to Pennsylvania
Sustainability doesn’t always require innovation. Sometimes, it’s bringing the basics back to the local community.
Mark Brault was working at a farm in Bucks County a little more than a decade ago, around the same time he was studying for his MBA. But a business idea for the craft food and beverage industry arose when he started considering the ingredients he was using.
Brault was mainly focused on getting grain that would meet food and beverage quality, considering that practically no one had grown grain for that purpose in Pennsylvania in decades.
The Keystone State produces a lot of craft beer – more than 3 million barrels in 2022. But, no one was making malt locally – and hadn’t since Prohibition.
“I started making some of my own, and after a lot of trials making not-so-great malt at home, I started realizing what it was going to take and started making some better ingredients to brew with,” Brault said.
That experience spurred him to launch Deer Creek Malthouse, the first malthouse in Pennsylvania since prohibition. Deer Creek focuses on flavorful ingredients using locally grown grain. “We’ve tried to keep our process pretty simple, so we believe really the best way to make high-quality malt is to do it on a small scale,” said Brault.
More than 100 breweries across the state have used Deer Creek’s malts, a positive sign for an industry that long relied on malt coming from outside of Pennsylvania.
Climate chaos adds to unpredictability for growers
Although he describes malting as simple at its most basic level, his challenges are compounded by working in the Mid-Atlantic Region, a location he views as difficult to grow grain in – especially as climate change evolves.
“It’s hot and humid in the summer. It’s cold in the winter, and lately, it’s been highly variable,” Brault said. “So it’s hot, and it’s cold, and we get a hard frost. And then, it’s warm again. So we need varieties that are resilient to a lot of those environmental factors.”
But Brault believes the region’s geographic diversity provides access to a lot of different kinds of grain. And he credits his customers for helping spark his company’s creativity.
“A baker will say, ‘Hey, could you smoke this dark Munich malt you make with a specific type of wood?’” Brault said. “And we’ll just do it. We may never have done it, but we’ll find the wood. We’ll custom malt something.”
“As we got a little more confident and knew we could grow grain and understood our process, we started to get a little more creative and started to say “Yes” to some of these custom requests.”
Launching new malt products – like Barley Tea
Deer Creek Malthouse’s innovation has manifested in other products, primarily by using some of its ingredients to make food and beverage. Brault cites barley tea as one example, and the Malthouse has developed its own version of the popular East Asia beverage.
“We’ve tried to make it more fun,” he said about the flavors of its barley tea. “We’ve added fruit, spices and herbs, a little bit of sugar and lemon at times to make something that tastes more like American ice tea than grain water.”
The company’s creativity has helped lead to the creation of the PA Pride series, a set of beers that aim to promote local agriculture. Brault said the collaboration was partly inspired by the inability to gather in person for the 2020 Philadelphia Grain and Malt Symposium, an annual event where figures such as brewers, maltsters, and bakers convene. The eighth beer in the series was released last year.
“We couldn’t get together during the pandemic in 2020, so we decided to do a collaborative beer release and virtual program,” Brault said.
The concept of local is also important for the malthouse when it comes to sustainability.
“As I look at the malting industry, malt travels thousands of miles, and we’re trying to do something small and local,” Brault said. “That’s to me, at the most basic level, what we’re trying to do that’s maybe more sustainable than how malt has been produced in the past.”
But while Brault admits that he may think about sustainability on the farm less than what others may think, he states he works with a lot of growers and farmer partners that are 100 percent organic.
“I think that’s sort of our de facto way of approaching sustainability at the farming level,” he said.
What does the future hold for the Deer Creek Malthouse? As a small venture focusing on high-quality products, Brault believes there needs to be growth for malting in Pennsylvania to have more of an impact on the beverage industry. Or launching new products.
“I think there’s room for us to create some customer-packed goods that we can share with the world that use our ingredients,” said Brault.
Photos courtesy of Mark Brault