By Trevor Bacque
It all started out innocently enough. A farm boy named Joe Hamill started homebrewing beer as a hobby in 2012. As he perfected one recipe, he began another; and another; and another. One evening after a family supper he mentioned to everyone that it would be quite something if he could use the malt barley from their Penhold, Alta., farm in his next batch. His wife Daelyn, brother Matt and mom Susie all thought it would be a unique twist on homebrewed beer.
As Joe started to homebrew a more locally-oriented brew, he unknowingly opened the tap line to an idea that hasn’t stopped flowing. However, it’s a far cry from how the family farm and its current business setup began 90 years ago.
Sandwiched between the 2A and the Queen Elizabeth II highways and straight east of Penhold, the Hamill family farm was established by Irish immigrants Bernard and Madge Hamill, along with their six children. When they arrived, the family only had one quarter section to their name. By the 1940s, sons Barney, Jim and John formed a three-way partnership and took over from their father. Barney ended up having three kids and one of them, John, had both a knack and love for the land. However, he worked off-farm for years as a power engineer at the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, helping part time on the farm as time allowed.
“I really liked it; I got to farm with my dad and two uncles. It was a great experience farming with those guys,” he says. “For myself, there was no stress because I was just renting land and didn’t have to worry about capital equipment purchases – pretty easy farming then for me. As I took more of a role, there became a lot more pressure to make money and pay the bills.”
It was 1995 when John was able to transition into farming full time as the family’s footprint had grown to 1,700 acres by that point. Today, it’s 2,100 acres of canola, wheat and malt barley, the latter of which is his prized crop. However, he doesn’t grow the two most popular varieties, Metcalfe and Copeland, which comprise about 80 per cent or more of Prairie acres every year. Instead, John grows Newdale, Synergy and Connect. All three lines are relatively new creations, and all share a common trait: the booming craft-brewing industry really prefers them.
“The feedback on these varieties is that craft market likes the taste of it. They’re looking at how they taste and they’re very interested in the specs of the base malt,” he says, adding that he doesn’t have lodging issues, which is a big plus in his area where winds are known to routinely whip through. He seeds his malt barley immediately after his wheat and canola, and he is experimenting with higher seeding rates. Those increased rates are expected to provide greater plumpness, yield and uniformity. While other farmers now opt to straight cut their barley early and dry it down on-farm, Hamill still swaths and combines, which works well for his 700 to 800 acres of barley he annually plants.
His farm has also generated international interest thanks to the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre (CMBTC). The Winnipeg-based industry group tests and promotes domestic barley to the world. Recently, it led a tour of Chinese delegates from the brewing and malting industries onto Hamill Farms to see Canadian barley in person. The delegation saw their potential product growing first-hand in the field and learned about how it performs in local conditions and why Alberta-grown barley is a great choice for their beers.
“The CMBTC has done a really great job to promote these new varieties and get our export customers to maybe change from the Metcalfe and Copeland,” he says. “The people were impressed, and these are big buyers who are purchasing one million tonnes of malt in a year. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I’d have Chinese malt buyers on my farm.”
It likely wouldn’t have been possible without his one son diving headlong into homebrewing and the Alberta government recently getting involved through revised legislation.
The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (now Alberta Gaming, Liquor & Cannabis) had an antiquated rule that stated an Alberta brewery must brew a minimum of 5,000 hectolitres of beer or 1.5 million beers annually to be in business. Due to massive startup costs and the capacity required to make this amount of beer, growth stagnated for decades. However, in December 2013, the AGLC lifted its punitive proviso and stated there would be no more minimum brewing requirements. The floodgates opened.
“We knew that the brewing industry was going to be changing in the minimum production laws and we saw an opportunity and started talking about it more often after family suppers,” says Matt, 34, who is also a 2017 Nuffield scholar. His area of focus: best practices in the barley value chain with case studies involving Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. Likewise, Joe didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into. “Even then, we didn’t know how many breweries would be there. It was definitely a little nerve-racking and kind of crazy, but it’s pretty exciting to think that we were hitting the market right at the perfect time.”
Despite the new-found ability to start a brewery of any size in Alberta, the Hamills thought better of it and instead looked out their front window for inspiration. If they could produce and supply the malt, they would secure their niche and be part of a community that they were banking on to explode with growth. It appears they chose right. In late 2018, the 100th Alberta brewery registered for business, up from 24 just four years earlier.
The decision to create specialty malts was cemented for the brothers one day during a brewery tour in Calgary in the winter of 2013. “Being at the Big Rock Brewery was this aha moment and seeing malt from Germany that travelled thousands of miles – it totally doesn’t need to. It was definitely some of that early motivation,” says Joe, 30.
So, with Joe’s homebrewing acumen growing by the batch, Matt’s ability to build relationships along with John’s skill to produce a quality crop, the trio decided to start seriously examining the idea of roasting and malting their barley. While many beers simply use a base malt, many more beers in the craft-brewing industry require specialty malts as well as three to five times more barley than normal due to the trend away from using adjuncts such as corn and rice.
In September 2014, they incorporated Red Shed Malting and they were on the hunt for malting and roasting equipment. There was one small problem. The only two maltsters in the province have some of the largest capacities in North America and a customized, on-farm setup wasn’t exactly readily available. “That was pretty tricky, especially on the scale we were going for. There wasn’t really anyone doing it or making the equipment; nobody in North America, or if they were, they made one version or a prototype,” says Joe.
They began doing their homework and spent long hours online researching where they could find the equipment they needed. They secured the first piece of the puzzle after finding a Chinese manufacturer in Jinan, about four-and-a-half hours south of Beijing. After talking it over, they decided John and Joe would go to China and investigate in June of 2015.
“A lot of people in the brewing industry get tanks made in China, but they use a broker,” explains Joe. “You can’t really do that with malting equipment because there aren’t many malt plants out there. It was a bit scary at first, but once we sat down and talked with them, it calmed the nerves a bit.”
The two spent their five days overseas in meetings with the company, including with its CEO and the engineer who would eventually build their entire setup. Joe approved the design schematic thanks to his background in architectural technologies. His engineering mind also looked after the entire retrofit of the cold-storage shed to house the malting operations. They made a second trip that November to give the final sign off on the equipment.
Shortly after the first China trip, Joe and Matt found a roaster, this time located in Turkey. Needing to once again see the potential purchase up close, the brothers set off around the globe. They spent five days talking with the company, which largely specialized in coffee roasters, and seeing the roaster operate in person. It wasn’t quite the same experience as with the Chinese company, though.
“While they tested out roasting the barley they set off every smoke detector in the building. That was pretty fun; the neighbours were probably a little concerned,” says Matt with a laugh. Despite a little smoke, the roaster was just what they needed and they signed on the dotted line. Two months later the roaster arrived. With both malting and roasting equipment, the respective companies sent over engineers to install and offer training. Joe began roasting almost immediately after setup.
By February 1, 2016, they had successfully sold their first bag of malt to Troubled Monk in Red Deer, a craft brewery operation that went on to claim second place in the World Beer Cup for its brown ale that May.
“It was pretty cool to take our barley, run it through our whole process, deliver it to a brewery and drink that product and know it came off of our land and we took it all the way to the brewery,” says Joe.
Their entire setup includes a two-metric tonne (MT) steep tank, a pair of two-MT saladin boxes where the grain germinates (which houses a built-in kiln), as well as a 4,500-litre water tank, malt cleaning equipment and grain-handling equipment. When Joe creates his malts, temperature is critical. The malt germinates between 17-20°C, and is finished in the kiln between 70-115°C. The malting process takes about seven days. Some of the specialty malts are further processed by being roasted between 70-230°C. The roasting process takes between 40 minutes to three hours depending on the order and desired flavour profile.
Joe largely developed his recipes through trial and error, as well as on a one-kilogram roaster, in order to find winning recipes. “Once we had that determined, we could scale up into the big roaster.”
Currently, Red Shed has 12 different malts on offer, however what makes them unique is that they do not blend malt varieties together, as is often the case. Instead, they market Newdale, Synergy or Connect as unique malts with unique profiles.
Their most popular selling malts are biscuit, Kananaskis (Munich style) and Rocky Mountain (Vienna style). The amber and chocolate malts are also well known among Alberta’s craft brewers, too. Typically, the average craft beer employs 80 per cent base malt and 20 per cent specialty malt.
Today, Red Shed runs between 70 and 80 per cent capacity throughout the year. Joe roasts and malts about 250 MT per annum and believes expansion may be on the horizon within 24 months to meet demand. Currently, Red Shed is the only Canadian malthouse complete with a roaster, able to produce specialty malts so desired by craft brewers. They also work closely with customers to ensure they’re putting out the best possible products.
“We definitely talk with brewers and work with them to know what they want and what colours they want in their malt,” says Joe. “We’re working with them to find out how dark they want that chocolate malt to be or if there’s something not out there, how do we get that. It’s a collaborative effort.”
With the location and ability to create new malts daily, the Hamills can rapidly react to customer demands. “Locally, if they need it tomorrow, they can usually get it. If we’re low on inventory, we can roast it next day or day of,” says Joe, adding that the exceptionally short lag time is what satisfies customers. “The main thing I usually hear when they compare to imports is ‘it’s so fresh.’ The smell just knocks them in the face and they just love that. They think it comes through in the beer, too.”
Now in its fourth year of operation, the entire family is part of the Red Shed Malting story. John and Joe seed, manage and harvest the barley. From there, Joe roasts and malts it. Throughout the year, Matt is making connections and sales with breweries across Alberta. Daelyn handles all marketing and communications efforts for Red Shed Malting and Susie is the resident left brain who adds up all the numbers for both Red Shed and Hamill Farms.
After getting into farming and thinking he and his wife may have a regular, predictable life, John says his two sons have taken the family down a gigantic rabbit hole, but they don’t regret a single moment.
“It has been a bit of a wild ride, it happened so fast. I had enough faith in the boys. Matt had a big job: he had to get out there and find customers to buy our malt; and Joe had to produce a product that was good. I just had to trust that they could do their jobs,” he says. “In the last four years, I’ve done things I never thought that I would do. I never thought I’d go to China to buy equipment; that’s pretty crazy. Even the installation of all the equipment – you don’t think that you could fit all that work into running a farm but somehow you do, then you’re under a steep tank getting it going. Overcoming all the obstacles coming your way, it’s pretty daunting when you’re going through it, pretty stressful, but after it’s pretty rewarding.”
To cap it all off, the boys did get into the brewing game after all. Hamill Brothers Brewing launched in January 2018 and created its first batch of beer that September. It was a strong bitter in honour of their dad who recently developed a taste for it. Cheers.