Cascadia Grains 2020 Recap

January 30, 2020

Thoughts from the January 2020 Cascadia Grains conference

Cascadia Grains – January 17 and 18, 2020 – Seattle and Olympia, Washington            

Recap by Artisan Grain Collaborative/Jennifer Breckner

The eighth annual Cascadia Grains conference was a lively mix of pre-conference field trips such as farm walks, a sourdough bagel baking class, and a brewing and distilling tour, as well as Deconstructing Dinner, a five-course meal with local grains held at the acclaimed restaurant, London Plane. The energetic conference ran all day Saturday at South Puget Sound Community College and focused on the areas of processing, production, business, food systems, and baking; the keynote speaker was baker Mel Darbyshire of Grand Central Bakery in Seattle and Portland. Interest in small grains continues to grow and half of the attendees this year were new to the conference.

Overall, I was impressed with how much has been accomplished in the Pacific Northwest in terms of growing the small grains market over a short period of time and the messaging of “Washington Grown” that I saw across restaurants and food and beverage companies in Seattle and the surrounding areas. There is a concerted effort for cross discipline collaboration across the small grain chain there and time and again I heard stories of pride associated with living in the area and creating a product that represents the terroir of the region. Conference topics ran the gamut from food justice and cultural pathways of grains to the economics of what to grow and also included hands-on workshops like “Masa: A Living History.” My own interests are in the areas of craft brewing and distilling and AGC has recently launched a Brewing and Distilling working group, so I focused in on those conference experiences. Here are some highlights:

Brewing & Distilling Tour in Seattle  

Fremont Brewing

The day started off at Fremont Brewing where co-founder Sara Nelson, a member of the conference steering committee, launched their approachable and delicious single farm DIPA (Double India Pale Ale) called Waves of Grain, with the proceeds going to Cascadia Grains. It features Baronesse barley grown by Joseph’s Grainery and malted by LINC Malt*, a farmer-owned co-op in Washington State. Given that IPA is the style that ushered in America’s love affair with hops, it’s appropriate that Fremont Brewing used that style to jumpstart an appreciation of the malt bill by highlighting Joseph’s Baronesse barley and Cashup wheat, both featured in the beer. Joseph’s farmer/owner, Bill Meyers, offered the official toast by saying that he never thought he’d see the day when a single beer would be the manifestation of the connections and collaborations around regional grain that had been a long time in the works. A recent article in VinePair offered that malt needs a rebrand akin to hops where single varieties are highlighted and Joseph’s has been able to do that, hosting a yearly Baronesse Barley Harvest Day celebration that is well-attended.

Westland Distillery

The second stop on the tour was to Westland Distillery creating phenomenally good American single malt whiskeys. The conference group did a tasting and tour, and learned of their partnership with The Bread Lab to produce small batches featuring a variety of experimental barley. If you, like I, thought there was only “barley,” well we were wrong. There are upwards of 50,000 varieties and the exciting news is that there are people across professional disciplines who are working to find ways to use them.

Copperworks Distilling

The last stop was at Copperworks Distilling Co. known for their excellent small-batch American Single Malt Whiskey, a series of gins, and vodka—all from malted barley. They are also committed to using Washington grown grains and have a plan to create 100% single farm, single malt whiskeys by 2025. Jason Parker, co-founder and president, as well as a member of the Cascadia Grains Steering Committee, toured us around the distillery which employs traditional Scottish copper stills and talked about how in working more with regional grain farms and craft maltsters, brewers and distillers need to think about quality over consistency and to differentiate regionally grown ingredients from small sustainable farms from commodity ones by telling their unique story.

Connecting Farmers to Craft Maltsters, Brewers, and Distillers

This tour was complimented by a conference session called “Growing Malt for Spec: Single Farm Brewing and Distilling, Traceability and Messaging,” facilitated by Jason Parker of Copperworks Distilling, with Adam Foy, Skagit Valley Malting; Pat Jansen, Matchless Brewing; Aaron MacLeod, Hartwick College; and Tyler Pederson, Westland Distillery. Jansen talked about how brewers in Washington are not immediately okay with spending a lot of money per pound for malt. He said, “We are in the era of hops so craft barley is going to be a tough sell for brewers.” Craft distilling seems more open to craft malt because it is a higher priced item to begin with and though craft beer can shoot upwards of $8 or more per pint, consumers still see it as existing in a more inexpensive price bracket than a bottle of craft spirit or a cocktail. Pederson, the production manager from Westland, offered that he begins to plan 5-10 years ahead for a whiskey so for general commercial purposes he cannot experiment with small yields.

Celebrating Cascadia Grains with Regional Craft Beer and Spirits

Lastly, the Washington State Beer Commission sponsored Best of Cascadia Beer and Spirits Tasting featuring craft beers and distilled spirits from WA, OR, and ID using traceable single farm, single malt varietals whenever possible. It was the perfect way to end an energetic, educational day learning about regional grains in Cascadia.

*AGC member Amy Halloran wrote a 2017 article about the founding of LINC in The Counter, formerly known as The New Food Economy.