“We are ready for our first batch of whiskey!” my husband Steve exclaimed. “Where’s the grain?”
For two years we had spent every evening, weekend and holiday building our distillery from the ground up. How could it be that suddenly everything was plumbed, wired in, ready to fire… and we didn’t have any grain?
Our day’s focus became abundantly clear. Steve knew from attending Moonshine University that there were large companies that ship toasted, malted and milled grains within a few days. We created a few recipes and I placed an order.
Meanwhile, I started wondering if it would be possible to use fresh grains direct from local farmers.
Through online research, I discovered that our County of Humboldt has a long history of grain production, dating back to the 1850s. By the 1920s, Humboldt-grown wheat, barley and oats were winning first place at the California State Fair.
I found several recent articles about farmers bringing grain-growing back to our region. I repeatedly saw the names Lisa and Laurence Hindley of Hindley Ranch, and John LaBoyteaux of Camp Grant Family Farm.
The Hindleys own a tractor repair shop in the historical town of Ferndale, and I reached Laurence there. He started working at The Farm Shop when he was 17 years old and bought the business in 1989. Hindley has been rebuilding and repairing equipment ever since. His love for antique farming equipment fueled the desire to start growing grain, as did his family’s history in the Mattole Valley, 80 miles south of our distillery. His great-great-grandfather George established the Hindley Ranch in 1872, growing wheat and oats, which he milled for flour and animal feed. Laurence Hindley and his wife, Lisa, are proud to be carrying on his family’s grain-growing tradition.
When Hindley asked what varietals we were looking for, I replied, “Well, what do you have?” We felt relatively confident we could make any grain work. After all, Corsair makes a Quinoa Whiskey, and Koval Distillery produces a whiskey from spelt.
I learned that the Hindleys grow several varieties of wheat and rye for a local baker, Rhonda Wiedenbeck, who owns Beck’s Bakery. Hindley said John LaBoyteaux also grows wheat and rye for Beck’s and he was glad I would be contacting him next.
Camp Grant Family Farm is 54 miles south of our distillery, along the world-renowned Avenue of the Giants (redwood trees). LaBoyteaux retired from growing fruits and vegetables for local farmers markets and transitioned to growing grain in 2006.
LaBoyteaux is a wealth of knowledge, which he generously shares, causing those in his presence to quickly search for a pen and paper. He explained that because of our climate, grains grown here do not require irrigation. Farmers plant during the wet season and by summer the plant head is formed and dry in preparation for harvest. LaBoyteaux said grains are a great rotational crop. After harvest, the field is planted with a legume before returning to grain in a three-year cycle. This system reduces weeds and prevents pests and disease.
In his experience, heirloom wheats yield approximately 1,500 pounds per acre, while modern varieties like Hollis hard red wheat and Alturas soft white wheat tend to have higher yields.
As we started discussing our first order, LaBoyteaux suggested I speak with Wiedenbeck before we move any further.
Our small community runs on loyalty such as this, and I was excited to talk with Wiedenbeck. I had heard of Beck’s Bakery but did not realize she uses local grains. I reached Wiedenbeck at her bakery; we had a riveting phone conversation and agreed to meet the next day. Her enthusiasm for our “local grain economy,” as she refers to it. was immediately apparent. Wiedenbeck showed me locally grown whole grains, which she lovingly held in her hand. She explained how her stone milling keeps the bran, germ and endosperm of the grain intact, making her bread more flavorful, nutritious and “good for your gut.” Wiedenbeck was thrilled that we were considering using local grains. Not only would this increase demand and ensure the farmers would sell all they grew, but we could work together placing orders, picking up grains and cross-promoting. I was also excited to pair our spirits with her baked goods! I learned that soft white wheat is used for pastries while hard red wheat is used in bread and cracker recipes.
After we talked, Wiedenbeck let me taste her cranberry-hazelnut bread made with Camp Grant’s Red Fife hard red wheat. She said it was a recipe she had made for years, then one day she made it with locally-grown, stone-milled wheat in place of bulk flour. She was absolutely shocked. Everything about the recipe was exactly the same except she used local grain. With my first bite, I could tell this was something special. It was of the earth! It felt alive and it was extremely delicious.
I was sold on local grains. Now Steve and I just had to figure out what kind of mill to get.
Around this time, we were at the American Distilling Institute’s annual conference in Kentucky. Our goal between classes was to visit the trade show portion of the conference and gather information from the mill vendors. We pored over the literature and decided on a Sasquatch roller mill from Malt Handling. All of our distillery equipment is American-made and this would be no exception. We purchased a ¾-horse power 4-roll malt mill, and it would arrive in… 12–15 weeks.
By now, the bags of milled grain had arrived. We decided we might as well delay our first batch a little longer since we were on the verge of getting local grains. (Those bags still sit unused in storage to this day.)
Wiedenbeck generously offered to let us use her mill until ours arrived. Now to get some grain.
The Hindleys had Hollis wheat and Alturas wheat in stock. We bought four barrels of each, which is approximately 3,000 pounds and enough for two batches of our whiskey.
The farmers store the grain in food-grade metal barrels that they get for free from the local creamery. The barrels are great for keeping the whole grains dry until we are ready to process them. We mill just before cooking, which makes for the freshest spirits possible, similar to grinding coffee beans just before brewing a cup.
Wiedenbeck recommended we purchase ten 32-gallon (trash) cans with lids and dollies for moving the grain around our distillery. These continue to work really well for us. We use them to deliver whole grains to the mill and milled grain to the cooker. Two of us can lift the cans into the cooker fairly easily. When out of use, the cans stack nicely out of the way.
Our first batch of whiskey was 100 percent Hollis. Our second batch was 100 percent Alturas. There are distinct differences between the two, from how the grains look to how they respond to cooking and fermenting to yield and taste. The differences stem from the varietal of course, but also the location of the farm, the quality of the soil, the farming practices (irrigated or dry), the time of year the grain is planted (spring or winter), etc. This is precisely what winemakers have been talking about for decades… terroir!
The third grain we distilled was Camp Grant’s AGS-104 rye. Rye is notoriously spicy but this varietal produces a hint of sweetness as well. We are thrilled with how it is progressing in the barrel. Next we tried Gazelle rye. Although it has a similar nose to the AGS-104, a blind taste test reveals noticeable differences between the two varietals.
We have one bourbon mash bill of white corn, AGS-104 rye and Alturas wheat, and another with yellow corn, Buck Pronto hard red wheat and Gazelle rye.
To think we might have just purchased corn, wheat and rye in bags and never known the endless combinations and intricacies that are possible when you know intimate details about the main ingredient you are working with!
Between Beck’s Bakery and our distillery, we are able to purchase all of the grains our local farmers grow each year. When the local grain is gone and harvest is still a ways off, we purchase bulk grains from a wholesaler. The benefits of wholesalers include: large quantities of grain in stock, lower price points and credit/standard 30-day terms, grains are usually certified organic and verified through the Non-GMO Project and standard protocol is to test every truckload of grain for moisture content, protein content and falling number (the level of enzyme activity that directly affects product quality).
Disadvantages may include: grain that is untraceable (a mixture of varietals from various farms) and a lack of direct contact with the farmers.
The quest for local grain is centered on fostering relationships with individual farmers and finding terroir for our spirits.
For us it has been crucial to include our local baker as well. There was a particular batch of Glee hard red wheat that Beck’s Bakery was struggling with. Her dough had a low mixing and fermentation tolerance. Her loaves were coming out dense and not fit for market. We offered to try the Glee in our whiskey recipe and had no issues at all. We have committed to buying all of this particular varietal and letting Wiedenbeck have first dibs on the others.
This is just one example of the ongoing conversations we have about which grains our farmers have access to and which varietals are working best in our finished products. We communicate about the challenges we face and how we can support one another. We know that our business models and our stories are completely reliant on our success as a team. We think that is the definition of community and we wouldn’t have it any other way.