SKOWHEGAN – Joel Alex graduated from Colby College as an environmental studies major and has been working as a mapmaking consultant for the past five years.
Alex, who lives in Farmington, said the local food scene, which includes three farmers markets and community-supported agriculture, piqued his interest in sustainable food systems. He took up home-brewing.
“One day I was like why doesn’t anyone make a locally sourced Maine beer? And that’s when I realized you couldn’t do that,” said Alex.
In April, Alex left his job to research malting and brewing full time with the aspiration of starting a malt house in the Somerset Grange hall. Although there are many beers brewed in Maine, one of the main ingredients used in making those beers — malt — is not produced in Maine.
Alex, who describes himself as someone who cares about where food comes from, has been working with the Maine Grain Alliance and was recently given a scholarship to attend the annual Kneading Conference in Skowhegan. The two-day conference featured regional and national experts on grain growing, milling, bread baking and wood-fired and hand-made ovens.
“It was a really good way for me to connect with other people in grain systems. Even people that aren’t necessarily interested in malting, for example bakers or millers, are working with the same ingredient, just in a different way,” said Alex.
For the last eight months, Alex has been working on establishing what would be Maine’s first craft malt house. Malt, which is made from processed grains such as barley, is used to make beer and whiskey as well as food products such as malt vinegar and malted milk. According to the Institute of Brewing & Distilling in London, there are just 28 craft maltsters in North America.
Amber Lambke, executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance and the founder and co-owner of the Somerset Grist Mill downtown, said that the addition of a malt house in the former Somerset Grange hall would benefit the revival of the local grain economy under way.
The grist mill, which opened in the former Somerset County Jail in 2008, processes and mills flour and oats that it buys from Maine farmers and distributes throughout the Northeast. It has contracts with food stores, bakeries and farmers’ markets including the New York City Greenmarkets, a network of 54 farmers’ markets based in Queens, N.Y.
Lambke said that there are a number of farmers in Maine that grow barley, but that most of it is shipped to Canada for malting.
“It’s grown in Maine but it’s not staying in Maine. I think if Joel can address that issue there is a lot of business to be had,” said Lambke.
In 2012, Maine ranked sixth in the U.S. for the number of microbreweries per capita, with a total of 37, according to the Brewer’s Association, an organization seeking to protect and promote independent brewers in the U.S.
Stephen Dionne, who recently bought the Somerset Grange with Lambke, said renovations on the building, which dates to 1894 and is on Pleasant Street a short walk from the grist mill, are well under way. He said he plans to restore the hall to its original exterior, with deep tan siding and white trim.
Dionne said he has spoken with Alex about putting a malt house in the bottom floor of the grange, an idea he says is a good one but that will also require additional work to the building’s electrical work and plumbing.
“I would love to see Joel in there. I think a malt house would couple nicely with the grist mill and it would be good to have another grain-based business downtown,” said Dionne.
Alex, who is teaching summer school in Massachusetts while working on his idea, said he sees the malt house as more than just a way to build the local grain economy.
“I’m someone who loves rural Maine and loves the rural community. The drive behind this is to find a method of rural economic development that also maintains rural character. I think food systems, and a malt house, can do that,” he said.
Rachel Ohm can be contacted at 612-2368 or at: