Alberta growers add value by producing high-quality malting barley

How — and why — this enterprising Alberta farm family built themselves a platform in Canada’s fast-growing craft beer industry

John Hamill has always liked showing the family’s Penhold, Alta. farm to anyone who asks. After all, the 2,200-acre farm, growing wheat, canola and high-quality malting barley, and home to now a fourth generation of Hamills, is his pride and joy. “But before, no one was asking,” says his son Matt, smiling. Hamill Farms Ltd. was just another ordinary, well-managed, western Canadian farm.

Now, however, the Hamills get tons of visitors, because in 2014 the family, including John and his wife Susie Hamill, sons Matt and Joe, and Joe’s wife Daelyn launched a new venture on the farm that they’re exceedingly pleased to show and talk about.

Red Shed Malting, their on-farm company, adds value to the farm’s barley by producing premium-quality base malts, plus lightly kilned and roasted specialty malts made from them.

In fact, it was the first in Western Canada to do so.

Left to right: Daelyn, Joe, Susie, John and Matt Hamill. photo: Kaycee Ann Photography

Red Shed Malting also does contract malting for other barley growers who are working with brewers to craft traceable, local craft-beer specialized malts.

In all, it’s made the Hamill’s farm a household word among farmers, brewers and beer drinkers throughout Wild Rose Country and beyond.

And it all began as dinner table discussion, after Joe took up beer brewing as a hobby a few years ago.

It was simple enough, Matt explains. “We wanted to get some of Dad’s barley into Joe’s beer.”

It might have remained just one of those “great ideas,” but Matt dug in. He wanted to know, would it really be possible? So he began asking where they could send small volumes of their barley to be malted, and soon discovered no one was malting and roasting at that scale.

“There wasn’t anyone,” he recalls. Which got them thinking.

An investment in education and training

Would it be feasible to get into malting as a business? Was there demand for a locally sourced, traceable, specialty malt barley?

A swing through the province’s burgeoning numbers of craft breweries began to provide the answers. Brewmasters told Joe and Matt they were, in fact, very interested in having access to locally crafted specialty malt.

For father John, making room on the farm for Joe and Matt meant expansion, or a new income stream. But what? photo: Kaycee Ann Photography

Then came more research and more conversations, plus a course at the Winnipeg-based Malt Academy at the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre (CMBTC), plus many more dinner table conversations, and finally the decision that their next move should be to construct a malt house.

Within two years they were malting their first batches of barley in newly constructed micro-malting facilities.

This was no small feat, and the relatively short timeframe belies the complexities that were involved. They were starting, literally, from scratch.

“There really wasn’t anyone to talk to because no one was doing it,” says Matt. They began to look the world over to source the right-sized equipment to do micro-scale malting, eventually going to China to work with a manufacturer there to have the facilities they needed custom built.

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They spent considerable time hunting down a right-sized roaster as well, and after finding one in Turkey, Matt and Joe spent time there training to use it.

Meanwhile, Matt secured a Nuffield Farming Research Scholarship in 2017 and embarked on more international travels to New Zealand and Australia. He travelled across Canada and the U.S. interviewing barley breeders, seed companies, farmers, maltsters and distillers, and this past January published his detailed Nuffield report on what he learned about best practices in malting and related industries.

Joe, meanwhile, was applying his technical training from CMBTC to the new farm malt house equipment, developing specialty malt recipe products and learning what to look for when malting barley from different varieties and harvest years.

Today Red Shed Malting is already operating at near capacity, malting about five metric tonnes of barley weekly, or 200 metric tonnes annually, including their own barley as well as from other growers.

In the past year 100 alcohol producers have purchased specialty malts produced at their malt house.

Most of their malt winds up in craft beer in Alberta, but they have sold to Yukon and B.C. brewers, including a collaboration with Burnaby, B.C.-based Dageraad Brewing, which was named Canadian Brewery of the Year in 2018.

“We’ve got a little going into Saskatchewan and Manitoba, too,” said Matt. Brews such as those produced at Armoury Brewing in North Battleford, and Torque Brewing in Manitoba contain their malts.

This has added value to their farm in several ways, say the Hamills. Especially rewarding has been the way it has forged important relationships between their farm and the entire supply chain now serving an increasingly sophisticated beer drinker who wants not just a well-crafted beer, but to know how it’s made, too.

On the Hamill farm, everyone is dedicated to their role, Matt says. It’s the only way it works. photo: Kaycee Ann Photography

That’s what prompted this year’s launch of Bock Chain, a new beer produced in a collaboration with Canada Malting Co. and Last Best Brewing & Distilling, a Calgary-based brewery, distillery and restaurant, plus technology provider TE-FOOD. Bock Chain has QR codes on its label, which when scanned with a phone, unlock the story of the beer, telling through videos, photos, maps and more how it originated in the Hamill’s fields, went on to Calgary to be malted, quality tested in a third-party lab, then back to Red Shed Malting for roasting and finally on to Last Best Brewing & Distilling for brewing, packaging and serving.

This enables them to be in what Matt describes as “the middle man” role, helping form and build partnerships and relationships along the whole value chain right through to consumers who are keenly interested in knowing how their favourite beverage was produced.

“We’re really kind of going after something new here, doing it at this scale, and going after the specialty malts and roasted malts, ” Matt says.

“It’s pretty exciting and it’s really a good spot for us in the value chain.”

His father agrees, adding that the on-farm company has been good for the overall farm business by making barley profitable to grow again, too.

“It makes our barley crop quite a bit more valuable to us,” John says. That gives them — and others — more reasons to keep growing barley, after steady declines in acres due to price competition from other crops. Barley is an important rotation option for Alberta growers, John points out, and they don’t want to lose it.

“To be able to take that barley and add value to it was really important to the farm because it helps us continue to have those rotations,” John says.

Around the table

Critically, Red Shed Malting also helped open a new way forward for the next generation on the farm. The credit for the vision behind all of this goes to Susie, her husband and sons say, because she’s the one who long wanted to see an enterprise on the farm that would engage the entire family.

“She’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit, where she wanted to have a business,” says John. “It was a dream of hers to have a business with her children.”

That’s because their dinner table talk has often been about who’d be operating Hamill Farms Ltd. one day.

By creating a new enterprise for the farm, they’ve found a way to re-engage both sons’ interests and skills, says John. It was either this, or try to acquire more land and grow the farm base to support more people.

Such expansion looked neither feasible nor even desirable, John says.

Right now Matt continues in his off-farm job as an agricultural lender with RBC, while Joe is now paid a wage for his contribution to the company.

Skills and commitments

Red Shed Malting really is a family partnership to which each brings specific skills and aptitudes.

“It’s taken all five of us and a huge amount of commitment from each of us, and a different skill set from each of us,” John says.

Each family member knows his or her responsibilities that keeps Red Shed operating smoothly. photo: Kaycee Ann Photography

As Red Shed Malting now enters its fifth year in operation, John remains fully engaged with managing the farm, while Matt and Joe attend to the business.

They refer to the entire family as “the maltsters” although Matt says that title actually belongs to his brother.

“Joe is the one who can rightfully call himself the maltster,” Matt says. “He does all the production and quality control and he’s in charge of the vast majority of the day-to-day operations. My role is the boots on the ground, talking with the breweries, staying in touch with the industry, deciding what events we participate in as well as overlooking our business plan, and giving us ideas on what our next steps should be.”

The company has a well-developed website and a significant social media presence that’s overseen by Joe’s wife, Daelyn Hamill. She works with her sister, a graphic designer and owner of Cheetham Creative, to develop all their branding.

John says he had no idea how much work that side of the business required until he saw his daughter-in-law managing it. It came with another realization too. Work in the area requires expertise, John says. “It would just be way too daunting for anyone else.”

Meanwhile, Susie Hamill continues to remain integral as a farm partner, overseeing the farm’s financials and doing office administration for Red Shed Malting.

The benefits of a farm background

For John, the real challenge with a value-added enterprise has been to get his mind set in a new direction. As he explains, it’s no small thing to transition to something completely new when you’re already well-established doing what you’ve always done.

“I was pretty comfortable on the farm,” John says. “I knew all my jobs. I could handle it easy. The malting plant threw a lot of extra work on and a lot of different stresses. You really have to be able to let go of how things were before.”

It’s also true, though, that the Hamills say a lot of the skills they had acquired from running the farm over the years served them well as they began to operate this company, such as being able to manoeuvre amidst complex, multiple and competing tasks, and setting priorities about what needs doing next.

A strong focus is key for any entrepreneur, they say, whether it’s a farm or any other type of business.

“You have to be motivated to get the job done, and you have to be able to foresee it,” says John. “If I don’t do this today, it’s going to be too late by tomorrow. You have to be really disciplined and be able to organize your day and your week and your year.”

Each had very specific skills and applied them to what they agreed to look after, John says, adding it was important to support each other but also to recognize that each person had unique abilities and was the best person to take that job on.

A good deal of credit also goes to the work ethic that the farm had built up in them, Matt says. This takes a lot more than eight hours of your day.

Plus, you also need to be able to take risks, Matt says. As a farm family, they were mentally tough to deal with things when they went sideways.

“Every growing season comes with its challenges,” Matt adds. “We’ve dealt with the equivalent on the business side as well. Surprises and challenges and things we didn’t expect and things that didn’t go as planned… you just deal with them.”

Other needs have also made them push their skillsets, like all the visitors they get these days. A venture like Red Shed Malting requires being a lot more interactive with the public. “I think we’re all pretty nice people and stuff, but again, you’re interacting with a whole lot more people than you’re used to, so that’s a change, and there was some learning there for everyone for sure,” says Matt.

And there’s always that fine line between work and life that needs attention. A lot of family time is now taken up with business meetings, says Matt.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to pull out Settlers of Catan or anything like that.”

Beer culture

The timing for launching Red Shed Malting could not have been better. A year prior to opening, Olds College had unveiled its Brewmaster and Brewery Operations program to train new brewers and to do R and D on new beer recipes made from locally grown ingredients.

Laws were also changing in the province to boost smaller brewers. There’s now a robust craft brewing and malting industry in a province with some of the most sought-after barley varieties in the world, and an increasingly vibrant culture and economy growing alongside the intensifying popularity of all-malt beer.

Their farm — now regularly hosting visitors including brewers and maltsters from across Canada and the U.S., Nuffield scholars from France and Australia, and Chinese officials representing companies buying large volumes of Canadian barley — is now an industry hub.

“This was a way of getting the boys onto the farm,” John says. Value adding opened that door, giving them a realistic alternative instead of having to try to grow the farm bigger. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that, or if it was even possible in our area,” John says.

“It’s worked out very well, because they took on jobs at Red Shed Malting that they’re very skilled at and they’re very good at. So instead of me teaching them a lot about the farm, they’re teaching me about this. It’s become quite a partnership.”

Untapped potential

A new report released in July calls for the expansion of the value-added food sector by improving regulations to allow for the expansion of international trade of processed food products, investing in innovation, and reducing the barriers to growth.

Made in Canada: Growing Canada’s value-added food sector points out only half of all agricultural production in Canada is now being processed.

“That’s a gap we think should be closed,” said Senator Diane Griffin, chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, who said she wasn’t surprised at the figure on how much production in Canada isn’t processed here.

“Canada has always been labelled as a place of hewers of wood and drawers of water. I wasn’t surprised it was low but I had hoped we’d made bigger progress than what we have,” she said.

The report cites a variety of hurdles and barriers getting in the way of more value-added production, recommending improving regulations to allow for the expansion of international trade of processed food, more investment in innovation, and reducing the barriers to growth inside its borders by harmonizing trucking regulations, and improved transportation networks.

“Some of the biggest trade barriers are within our own country, between provinces,” Griffin said.

That report also recommends investing in research and development and using existing mechanisms to support innovation in the sector, including grants, rebates and superclusters, to encourage the launch or growth of businesses that manufacture value-added products.

The report also pointed to labour shortages impeding the value-added sector.

“This is a sector where we’re already seeing incredible ingenuity in the development of products that meet both national and international demand. With support from the federal government to break down regulatory barriers and foster further innovation, Canada’s value-added sector could become an essential component of the Canadian economy,” Griffin said.

Fast facts

    • The food processing sector is one of Canada’s largest employers, representing 17.3 per cent of manufacturing employment.
    • Of all value-added food companies in Canada, 94.1 per cent have fewer than 100 employees. Companies with more than 500 employees make up only 0.5 per cent of the total.

About the author

Associate editor

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is associate editor with Country Guide. She has also covered agriculture and rural issues since 1995 as a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator and Farmers’ Independent Weekly.

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