To make beer, you need some kind of grain. But raw grain isn’t ready for prime-time brewing. The starch in grains, which is what yeast eats to produce alcohol and carbonation, needs to be precooked — or, in the vernacular, malted. The Hudson Valley has become a hot spot for brewers and for farmers who grow the grains, but local malt had been hard to find — until 2015, when a Germantown-based husband-and-wife team took it upon themselves to fill that niche.
Dennis and Jeanette Nesel started their company, Hudson Valley Malt, to connect Hudson Valley farmers who grow the barley, wheat, rye, corn, and other grains to the brewers themselves.
They partner with Hudson Valley farms to take the grain and put it through the malting process, which involves soaking it in water until it germinates, then roasting it to stop the germination. This roasting process is key, as it paves the way for a beer’s color and flavor. Generally speaking, the lighter the roast, the lighter the beer: Light roasts make golden ales, pilsners, and pale ales. Medium-roasted malts go into amber and Scottish ales and darker lagers. Dark malts, naturally, produce dark brown ales, stouts, and black lagers.
Five years ago, no one would have expected the Nesels to fill the void in local malt. He is a financial adviser by day, and Jeanette was a radio advertising executive until recently. They live on a horse farm, and Dennis wanted to use his expertise on his own finances. “I came home one day and decided to apply what I do on us,” he says. “With a horse farm, you spend a lot of money.” They decided not to increase the number of horses they own, which left them with a large, mostly unused barn. “We said, ‘Let’s find something else to make this land sustainable,’” he says.
So, in 2013, they planted barley and hops as cash crops. “We were having dinner with a local farmer who was building a brewery, and he said, ‘Why don’t you convert your barn into a malt house?’”
“I did not know what that was,” Dennis says. “No clue. But we dug in and researched it.” He liked what he learned, and invested about $350,000 in capital and sweat equity to convert their barn and buy the steep tanks, kilns, and other machinery. He taught himself how to malt at seminars, through reading, and by watching a lot of YouTube videos.
He also learned about beer. “I can’t say I was a craft beer fan. We drank wine. For me, a beer would have been Bud Light. It was a whole learning experience for us.” Research included buying lots of six-packs. “We started with Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada,” he says. “Now I wouldn’t go near that [mass-produced] stuff.”
They produced their first malt in 2015. Though Dennis has kept his day job, the malt business has been so successful, they are expanding in production size, equipment, and employees, to meet the needs of local brewers and distillers. “I do chores in the barn before going to the office, chores after work, chores on weekends. We malt around the clock,” Dennis says. “I’m 57, and it keeps me in shape. I drive a desk for a living, so I like working the farm.” And he loves being part of the local craft beer movement. “Isn’t it cool that now we can really make ‘beer from here?’”