Fort Collins, Colorado
Industry: Brewing & Distilling
Products: Craft malts
Co-founder Christopher Schooley sees vast potential connecting local farms and breweries with small-batch malts.
After nearly 20 years in coffee roasting, Schooley met co-founder Steve Clark, a veteran of the pharmaceutical industry and avid homebrewer, in 2013. "Both of our backgrounds are really suited to the business," says Schooley.
Clark was looking at opening a craft brewery at the time. "It was already pretty saturated." Then they looked at craft malting and saw an opportunity on the supply side.
"There are a lot of small, independent brewers," says Schooley. "All the growers are also small, independent businesses. We're just trying to tie all of these small, independent businesses together and build a new economic paradigm."
The pair spent more than a year developing a small-batch malting system before launching operations in 2015. "Nothing really existed at the time," says Schooley.
Clark's pharma background led to "one of our big breakthroughs," says Schooley. "In the pharmaceutical industry, a lot of their equipment is built out by HVAC contractors. We connected with a local HVAC company [Air Comfort] that he'd worked with in the past."
The end result is a "box-based system" that they first turned on in 2015. It handles about three tons of grain at a time.
With seeds from Limagrain Cereal Seeds in Fort Collins, Troubadour connected with five local barley growers. For wheat, the company works with Marc Arnusch Farms by way of Colorado State University's Wheat Breeding and Genetics Program. "Colorado, we just have great wheat here, but it's not grown for the brewing industry," says Schooley, touting the "significantly different" mouth feel of local grain.
Customers include Oskar Blues, Horse & Dragon, Zwei, Our Mutual Friend, Little Machine, and Odell. Schooley says Soul Squared, TRVE, and Berthoud use Troubadour's malts in "almost all" beers. "We've sold to over 40 different breweries regionally," says Schooley.
"One of the things we're selling is partnership," he adds. "Year one was a lot about us reaching out and seeing where this was going to land. Last year was building those relationships."
Annual production is on track to double in 2017. "Our goal for the year is 100 percent growth from last year," says Schooley.
Part of it's due to creative branding. "We're taking a cue from the hops market," says Schooley, pointing to Galaxy, Chinook, and other notable varieties. "Let's give the malts names." Thus, Troubadour's music-inspired catalog includes Ballad, Serenade, and Encore, as well as small, one-off batches to "keep it interesting."
But the branding wouldn't mean much if the quality wasn't there. Brewers "can taste the difference," says Schooley. "Freshness plays a big factor in that."
Because the grains are locally grown, turnaround from field to brewery is just days after malting. "The conventional wisdom forever has been that it doesn't matter: You're supposed to sit on your malt for a long time until it's stabilized," says Schooley. " But stabilizing just means the malt's degrading until it's predictable."
"We were told, 'You shouldn't focus on base malts. Everybody is focused on price on that.' But one of our bestsellers is Pevec malt." The success of the light malt, named for the Czech word for songbird, "is a testament to the quality" of the product.
"We really want brewers to think of malts in a sensory, flavor way, and not just numbers," says Schooley. "When you treat your raw materials as a generic commodity, that's all they're going to be."
Troubadour has partnered with TRVE and other brewers and providers to launch the SOWN program to showcase local ingredients with quarterly events. "It's a celebration of the supply chain," says Schooley. "I feel that brewers should be able to talk about their raw materials."
It all harkens back to the Troubadour name, he adds. "From day one, we really wanted what we're doing to be about telling the story of where raw materials come from."
Challenges: "Building that confidence with brewers and getting our varieties into brewers’ hands," says Schooley. "There's still a price thing. Malt's been sold as a commodity. We're out there charging a premium for this product and brewers have to decide to take that risk."
Conveyance is another challenge: Moving all that grain is a lot of work. With part-time help from Clark's nephew, the day-to-day involves "a lot of shoveling and bucketing" in a 2,500-square-foot facility, says Schooley. "We could turn our facility into a CrossFit gym and charge people to come in and shovel grain," he jokes.
Opportunities: Supplying the Centennial State's 300-plus breweries with malt. "We could quadruple in size every year and not meet the demand in Colorado," says Schooley.
Needs: Space. "We're hoping to expand in this facility or a new facility," says Schooley. "Storage is always a need." More space will allow for more malting. He sees building out "multiple small systems" as demand warrants expansion.