(Brad and Seth Klann are the owners of Mecca Grade Estate Malt, established on their family farm | Photo by Kristine Thomas)
Handcrafting beer in his garage led Seth Klann to embark on an endeavor to learn how to make malt from the grains grown on his family’s 1,000-acre farm, established in 1905 in Madras.
Seth was purchasing a few different malts from a German company to use in his homemade beers. Malted grains have been an ingredient in beer and whiskey for thousands of years.
“Germany was the only place I could purchase the malts I wanted such as the malt made from hard red spring wheat,” Seth, 36, said. “We were growing it on our farm, and that’s what got me thinking if we are growing this wheat, we could make the malt.”
When he began learning the malting process about ten years ago, Seth said there wasn’t good information on how to make malt on the small scale. He experimented using the farm’s grains and figured it out.
His next step was sharing his idea to start an estate malting business with his wife, Sally; his parents, Debbie and Brad Klann; and his sister and her husband, Katie and Travis Ralls.
Seth and Brad chuckled when recalling the day Seth pitched his idea to make malt from the farm’s grains. “Once I get an idea, I don’t let up on it,” Seth said. “I always have crazy ideas so he’s probably tired of hearing them.”
Brad said he had to think about the idea for a while. He and Seth did some research and traveled to Winnipeg, Canada to attend a school on how to malt grains. “Some people look at farming and think it’s easy. There’s a lot to it. To hold a ranch or farm in the family for several generations takes a lot of planning and proper business management to keep it together,” Brad said. “The malthouse is another thing we could do help keep the farm together and pass it down to generations to come.”
Mecca Grade Estate Malts was established in 2014 as a separate business from the farm. Seth and Brad compare their business to an estate vineyard and winery. Their eighth generation Oregon farming family grows and malts their heirloom grain and grows one variety of spring, two-row barley, called Full Pint, which was bred by Oregon State University.
Brad and Travis operate the family farm where they grow Kentucky bluegrass on 600 acres to sell for its seed, and barley, rye, hard red spring wheat and soft white wheat used for the 11 different varieties of Mecca Grade Estate Malt. Katie, Seth and Brad manage the malthouse.
Seth started by making 30-pound batches, then scaled up to 700 pounds a week, which were sold to The Ale Apothecary in Bend.
Seth said the malting process changes the grain from a hard, raw seed to the finished product, which has a crunchy texture and tastes more like a cereal. “Malting is a cross between roasting coffee and toasting bread, it’s about the time and temperatures. Our machine moves nonstop to create unique flavors.”
Graduating from Oregon State University with a degree in graphic design and marketing, Seth has used his talents to develop the logo, webpage and marketing for Mecca Grade Estate Malts. The company’s name comes from their farm being near Mecca Flats, once a town with a railroad station for farmers to take their crops to be delivered to other cities.
Their malts are named after Oregon ghost towns including Mecca Grade Pelton, a Pilsner-style malt; Mecca Grade Shaniko, a white winter wheat malt; and Mecca Grade Opal 44, a caramelized toffee malt.
Working with GEM Equipment of Oregon, Brad and Seth invented and helped to design a malt machine about the size of a train’s boxcar. The new machine processes 24,000 pounds of grain a week. “The malting machine we have is the only one in the world to process the malt in one machine,” Brad said. “It was our design and GEM’s engineers that created it.”
Brad explained after the grain is harvested and stored, it moves to the clean room to sort out debris and collect uniform seeds. Next, the grain is loaded into the malting machine, which soaks, stirs and kilns the grains. “The way our machine works is like a carousel. The depth of our kernels are 18 inches deep, the conveyer tumbles and mixes every kernel to create uniformity,” he said. “Our malt is considered the Mercedes of the malts. Part of the reason is because if you look at our kernels, they are all the same size and color.”
Depending on the grain, the malting process takes eight to ten days. After the malting process, the grain is cleaned again, then bagged. “What makes our malts unique is the fact no one else is doing what we do,” Seth said. “Every single step of our process is different. We want to create a malt that adds flavor to the finished product that creates an impact.”
Seth crafts small batches of both botanical and hop beers using his malts. The botanical beers are made with ingredients found on their land or nearby farms including juniper, yarrow, stinging nettles and sage. The yeast for their beers came from a juniper tree on their land. The hops are from the Yakima Valley and the Willamette Valley. “We make the beers so brewers could taste our products when they visit and tour the malting house,” he said. “We also want to explore what we can produce by working with the environment and discovering its whole world of flavor.”
They currently sell their malts to more than 50 companies throughout the United States, including New Basin Distillery, The Ale Apothecary, Crux Fermentation, Worthy Brewing, Boss Rambler Beer Club, Kobold Brewing and Crooked River Brewing in Central Oregon.
Jacob Bansmer, an owner and the brewer at Boss Rambler Beer Club, shared Seth and Sally Klann have been helpful in making his business successful. “The products we buy from them are without comparison anywhere in the market, not only in terms of specification but also customer service and a connection to the agricultural community in Central Oregon and beyond,” Bansmer said.
Larry Sidor is the co-founder, master brewer and CEO of Crux Fermentation Project as well as a fan of Mecca Grade Estate Malt. Crux uses Mecca’s Rimrock Rye Malt in its Crux’s Lost Love Imperial Russian Stout and its Straight Bourbon Whiskey that it will release in December. “Mecca Grade malt is a home run for Crux,” Sidor said. “They provide malts that meet our core values. Those being local, sustainable, unique, experimental and just damn good.”
Paul Arney wears numerous hats at The Ale Apothecary including CEO, Master Mad Scientist and Tasting Room Staff. He had more than 25 years in the brewing industry before starting The Ale Apothecary in 2011. He and Seth met at a brew day, where they discovered they shared a similar vision to use local and natural ingredients as much as possible. “At the time Seth started Mecca Grade Estate, brewers couldn’t find a high-quality barley malt, because it didn’t exist,” Arney said. “Seth has developed a way to produce this in Central Oregon.”
Throughout his career, Arney said he has used malt from around the world. “The Mecca Grade Estate Malt rivals anything, actually exceeds the quality you can find anywhere else,” Arney said. “I think it’s a testimony to Seth being a small business owner who is directly involved in the process which ends up with a higher quality product.”
Seth and Brad see the malthouse as a celebration for Central Oregon. They opened a tasting room this year along with inviting guests of Harvest Hosts. “In Central Oregon, we are able to grow some really unique things, and we have our own unique flavors and that’s what we are trying to celebrate through our process of making malt for breweries and distilleries,” Seth said.