- by Kara Larson -The Unmapped Art of Making Beer with Minnesota Small Grains
This is a story about being able. A memento of what drives us, what fulfills us, what challenges us. When I sat down in the off-hours empty taproom at Able Seedhouse + Brewery in Northeast Minneapolis to chat with founder Casey Holley, I thought we’d be talking about beer. And we did; but there’s a whole lot more to the story.
Part I: From Lodi to Minneapolis
Years before Able became reality, Casey and his wife lived in Lodi, California. This town is tucked away in the central valley of California and boasts a successful agronomic winemaking community. Here, the impetus of Able was born. Casey begins, “The community truly believed that Lodi had some of the best wine in California; everybody in that little wine region was supporting it to some degree. Whether they were farmers or winemakers or chefs or bottle makers or label makers—everyone around was living and breathing it and had been for generations.”
Living there was more than just learning about it, but being fully present in it day after day. Soon, Casey was thinking about how to take this concept back home to Minnesota to tell a similar story through Minnesota small grains. He looked at how they supplied, how they sourced, and how they produced. He studied the differences between the winemakers’ sources and processes, all the while relating them to the potential of Minnesota grains.
He was also researching malthouses across America and found one micro-maltster in Reno, NV—Rebel Malting, founded by Lance Jergensen—that further piqued his interest. Casey describes Lance as a mad scientist maltster and since he was just on the other side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains from Lodi, Casey would drive over, meet with him, and walk through the malting process, trying to learn everything he could.
Beyond Lance’s expertise, Casey also found a great deal of information and assistance through the Craft Maltsters Guild. “They’re continuing to educate everyone in the craft malt industry in America,” begins Casey. “There are more and more popping up around the U.S. and they’ve organized and provided a lot of guidance, assistance, and education around how to get grain processed and malted.”
With inspiration, know-how, lots of practice malting at home, and an open-ended plan in his pocket, the opportunity to return to Minnesota came about and Casey and his wife moved back east to the land of expansive farmland and craft brewing.
At last, the real beginnings of Able were born. Leading up to Able’s taproom grand opening in November 2015, Casey spent the past few years building a supply chain of Minnesota grain farmers and putting together an elite team, including mastermind brewer Bobby Blasey. As the stories of every individual involved with Able, including the small grain farmers, came together, the true expression of being able to grow, make, brew, and explore was realized. And the best part? It’s a realization best served chilled and in a pint glass.
Part II: Blazing Trails (of Barley, Wheat, & Rye)
A short drive to Shakopee will bring you to Rahr Malthouse, one of the biggest malthouses in the world. They provide malt for large-scale breweries that distribute around the globe. The quality and consistency of their grains has made Rahr into a powerhouse malthouse. So much so that if you head back into the production area of most any present day brewery, Casey assured me that you’ll see giant bags of Rahr grain.
In the eyes of the brewer, you know what you’re getting with a large-scale malthouse like Rahr and it’s just a phone call away. However, Casey has a different perspective about what craft malting Minnesota small grains can contribute not only to the flavor of the brew, but also to the systems in which beer is brewed today. Right now, there’s no denying that it’s harder to go build a farm supply chain and to try to figure out how to get small grains into the product. But this approach to beer might also the most interesting piece of Able. And though Casey admits that he isn’t sure what malting at their scale and with small Minnesota grains will do for the consistency of flavor in the beer, he also admits that it’s that sort of inconsistency that he really likes in a handmade product.
“Forget about beer—any handmade product is made more interesting in the inconsistencies.” He adds, “The crop can vary from year to year, so it may give us something new next year. But those inconsistencies are interesting because it poses another challenge that we get to work through. Maybe it makes the beer better or maybe we find a way to manipulate the grain in a different way because of how it comes out of the field.”
So, yes, there are challenges ahead. But for Casey, just because the path isn’t pothole-free or paved or in all honesty, even in existence, it doesn’t mean he and his team aren’t able to do it. “I’m not following a roadmap on how to get grain grown and processed and then into some of our beers—that just doesn’t exist. We have to go at it blindly, trust our instincts, and rely on what the Craft Maltsers Guild and the University of Minnesota have done, keeping our eye on what Rahr has accomplished along the way.”
Their methods might be more difficult and the outcome might be indefinite, but Casey believes in the exploration of the Able approach to beer. “Like food and like wine, we think that if we grow this thing here in this place, it could taste different,” Casey begins. “It could have a positive impact on flavor and the quality of the beer. We hope that’s true, but we don’t really know because it hasn’t been done since before prohibition. That’s the exploration in this whole piece.”
One thing is for sure—people are thinking about grains in new, flavor-centric ways and by working toward getting small grains and malts into their beer, Casey and the Able team are part of the new wave of grain innovators. “For the first time in a really long time, farmers are, with the help of the University of Minnesota, trying to find grain that is bred for flavor rather than quantity or yield.” Casey adds, “And that’s a huge shift in thinking. A lot of that is driven by the food industry, but certainly brewing too—at least in our case.”
Able had just received their first shipment of barley the day before Casey and I talked—a day in which he spent three years preparing for, building a supply chain to get to a point where he could finally make a transaction with a small Minnesota farmer. From here, he is hoping to use this barley in their beer, but will first begin with several test batches. “I’m really stoked to finally get that raw material in here and start playing and test-batching with that grain. We will first see how it performs in our malthouse and seedhouse part of the business and then see how it performs in the beer. That’s still the uncharted territory, which is kind of terrifying, but also super exciting and motivating.”
Part III: Connecting to Community
Beyond the beer philosophies of Able, the taproom functions as a locale focused on education and community connection. In the greater sense of community, Casey explains Able’s role as a connector of like-minded people, organizations, and businesses. “We want to be more than a spot where people come and drink our beer. We want to engage in a more meaningful way with the community; we want to forge real relationships. I think that’s much more interesting when I start thinking about community. More than being a part of it, how do we add to it and grow with our own community?”
For Able, it comes back to shared values. As Casey looks at causes, movements, and art that line up with the values of Able, he plans events around them to support those shared values. Able has supported music programs, cold, clean water, climate generation education, and protecting wilderness through the Boundary Waters. It is through community engagement like this—where Able and the neighborhood get to come together and support worthy causes—that anchors Able’s place in the community.
Beyond social causes, Casey also wants to expand the way Able engages with food communities. Thus far, they have bread drops by local bread makers, Laune Bread and Fire & Flour. These two makers have also used Able beer and spent grains in special loaves.
The taproom also serves as the location where Able can communicate with and educate the community. Here, Able has the opportunity to talk to them about what they’re doing, why they think it’s important, how it can affect flavor, how it can impact a farmer’s life or their crop rotations—educating them on what it really means to be able. Casey shares, “It was really important to have a location that worked for us to have access to people who share those same food philosophies and have the same shared values. We wanted to be close to those people and they exist here in Minneapolis in a really big way. It was important that we were here to do that.”
Part IV: HERE—The Importance of Place
We all want to feel connected to where we live. We want to look at the bold skyline before us or the expansive farmland around us and feel energized. We want to know our neighbors and engage in our communities. We want to connect with unique breweries like Able. And we want to know the story behind the beer we drink there.
“In terms of being connected to the land, I look at what was instilled in me at a very young age. My parents and family taking me out to understand what wilderness was and what that meant to me—it was understanding the value of those wild places and what we have here, not just in Minnesota, but in America. And for me, it’s always been a part of my life, so my first connection to the land was getting out there on a trail or on a lake and immersing myself in that thing for a number of days.”
This connection to the land, to this place, translates into the farmers Casey works with to source Able’s barley, red wheat, and rye. “I feel lucky to get to talk to farmers now and get to try to highlight what they’re doing and the place they come from and the people they are and the families and businesses that they’ve built. I feel very lucky that I even get a tiny piece of that to share with people—it’s kind of mind-blowing to me.”
As the Able team continues to experiment with small grains every day, they are tenaciously working towards incorporating them in their beer. And every day, this goal becomes closer to reality. Soon, when you watch the smooth amber pour from the tap at Able, you will know that it was five generations of farmers in Brown’s Valley, Minnesota or in Hallock, Minnesota that made it happen. You will think of Casey connecting with their story and setting up a small grain supply chain previously unmapped. You will grasp that the quality of the beer is the result of years of planning, growing, connecting, forming real relationships. That’s Able.