Origin Malt is Igniting a Seed-to-Sip Beer Revolution

How the Ohio-based malt house aims to bring barley production back to the Midwest

Photo courtesy of Origin Malt.

Awarded for: Origin Malt is building a production chain for midwestern brewers that provides homegrown grains, so their beers can be 100 percent locally made.  

Local beer in the Midwest is largely a misnomer. Breweries mostly buy malt—a beer’s foundational ingredient—from hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away, turning far-flung grains into IPAs, stouts, and lagers that, though they’re brewed “locally,” aren’t especially homegrown.

But Victor Thorne and Ryan Lang are planting the seeds of change for midwestern barley. The cofounders of Origin Malt, founded in 2015 and headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, have an ambitious plan to bring barley and malt production back to the Midwest, giving breweries in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois—and even California—the opportunity to brew resolutely midwestern beer. 

By championing new barley strains and partnering with midwestern farmers to plant the crop, Origin Malt hopes to create an agricultural supply chain. It will provide farmers with a valuable new winter crop that can minimize soil erosion, and it will supply brewers with compelling, low-carbon-footprint grains that offer a unique sense of place and taste. The company espouses a “mantra of seed to sip,” Thorne says, adding that Origin Malt aims to “unlock the potential of the region.”

Victor Thorne and Ryan Lang
Left: Victor Thorne. Right: Ryan Lang. Photo courtesy of Origin Malt.

The Midwest wasn’t always a barley wasteland. Prior to Prohibition, Thorne says, Ohio farmers alone grew 350,000 acres of barley, with many malting facilities based in the Buckeye State. America’s dry spell caused demand for barley—it’s converted into malt, unlocking the sugar source for yeast—to shrivel up. Ohio farmers turned to corn, soybeans, and wheat, and domestic barley production shifted to states including Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota, and to Canada as well. 

Lang, who cofounded Middle West Spirits in Columbus in 2008, preferred to source Ohio-grown corn, wheat, and rye for his distillery’s vodka, whiskey, and bourbon. However, Middle West imported its malt from the United Kingdom, prompting the question whether Ohio could again produce malt on a commercial scale.

Lang saw a need not just for his distillery but also for Ohio’s emerging brewing scene. Before 2011, there were fewer than 50 breweries in Ohio; today there are more than 300, and “many craft brewers,” Lang says, “want local ingredients for their products.”

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In time, Lang’s quest led him to Dr. Eric Stockinger, a barley breeder and an associate professor in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science at Ohio State University. Since 2008, Stockinger had been researching lines of malting-quality barley. He sought varieties that were disease resistant and high yielding and versatile enough to be grown from Michigan to Kentucky and throughout Ohio and its neighboring states.

And Lang needed a variety that could be grown during the winter. 

Persuading farmers to swap out summer’s lucrative corn and soybean crops would be tough. But convincing them to plant barley as a cover crop—to minimize soil erosion and runoff, leading to cleaner water—would break up the corn-soybean-wheat rotation and be an easier sell. With Stockinger’s advice, Lang zeroed in on Puffin, a hardy variety (it survived the polar vortex of 2013) and an offspring of Maris Otter, a flavorful heirloom British barley that’s prized by brewers for its rich, nutty flavor. 

“Its heritage is serendipitous,” says Thorne, a serial entrepreneur who, also serendipitously, has experience in supply-chain management. 

Origin Malt
Photo courtesy of Origin Malt.

Over the last few years, the Origin Malt team has partnered with farmers in Ohio and its surroundings to cultivate Puffin test crops that are malted by a third-party company, then put through trials by Ohio breweries such as Mad Tree, Rhinegeist, and notably, North High Brewing. To commemorate the Ohio Farm Bureau’s 100th anniversary this year, North High used Puffin to make a light and refreshing golden ale called Cover Crop, a nod to Puffin’s beneficial roots. 

“The point was to showcase the terroir of Ohio,” says North High’s brewmaster, Jason McKibben, who also used native hops in the beer. Within the first month of Cover Crop’s release, “the beer was just gone,” McKibben says. “People were driving to our taproom in Columbus from more than 100 miles away because they could not find the beer.”

North High has now included Cover Crop in its year-round lineup, with a steadily increasing supply of Puffin ensuring regular production. Last year, Origin Malt harvested 7,500 acres of barley, a number set to double in 2019. The five-year goal is 75,000 regional acres, with a malting facility to be established in rural Marysville, about 30 minutes northwest of Columbus. 

Building a new business takes time, which suits Lang just fine. “The one thing in the whiskey game that [we’re accustomed] to is patience,” he says. “You make something today, and it can sometimes take a decade to see the light of day.”


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Contributing editor Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food, and travel journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide, event producer, and industry consultant. He writes for the New York Times, Men’s Journal, New York magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and Imbibe, where he’s a contributing editor in charge of beer coverage. Bernstein is also the author of five books: Brewed Awakening, The Complete Beer Course, Complete IPA, Homebrew World, and Drink Better Beer.

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