On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe chats with Matt Hoffman, co-founder and managing director of Westland Distillery in Seattle. Hoffman recounts the history of the distillery, and why he chose to focus on single malt whiskey rather than bourbon. Hoffman claims that the Pacific Northwest grows some of the best barley on earth. Hoffman also explains how and why the Pacific Northwest serves as Westland’s inspiration in capturing terroir.
Plus, listeners will learn about how Quercus garryana, the native oak species used to age Westland’s products, differs from the American white oak that houses bourbon. Listeners will also get a glimpse into experimentation that is occurring at distillery involving research at Washington State University. Finally, Hoffman details the distillery’s farm project, which is aimed at furthering the distillery’s connection to agriculture.
Tune in and visit the Westland Distillery website to learn more.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe and this is a VinePair “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations in between our regular podcast episodes so we can explore more stories and ideas in the world of drinks. Today, I have the pleasure of joining, in person, as hard as it is to believe, Matt Hoffman, who is the co-founder and managing director at Westland Distilling here in Seattle. Matt, thanks so much for your time.
Matt Hoffman: Well, thanks. We’re thankful that we’re able to actually have you here in person. Totally forgot how to do this.
Z: It’s true. I hope that this sounds good to you all. There’s background noise, but I figure again, you’ve been hearing us in our sterile home environments for over a year now, so this is a little excursion.
M: Yeah, these are authentic distillery sounds.
Z: Exactly. So let’s actually start with a little history of the distillery. When was Westland founded, and what was the idea behind it? When was it just an idea?
M: Yeah, we were officially founded in 2010. We founded the business in September of 2010 and really started full-scale production in June of 2011. We’ve been in the production of whiskey for 10 years. The core idea behind it has always been very simple, which is to make something that is reflective of place. For us here in the Pacific Northwest in Seattle, what that has meant is American single malt whiskey that is evocative of the Pacific Northwest. A lot of people think that if you’re an American distillery, you should be making bourbon. But actually, we’re a long way away from Kentucky. Literally as far from Kentucky as you can get. This is barley country up here. This is one of the best places to grow barley in the world. We believe at Westland that whiskey should be connected to agriculture. That might sound obvious, but I don’t think actually a lot of other distilleries believe that, but we really do. So, because this place is a great barley-growing part of the world, we believe we should be making single malt.
Z: I want to get into this idea of single malt whiskey as a way to express a sense of place and talk about some of the things you’re doing. But first, just to give a little more background for people: How did you learn to make single malt whiskey? Again, not that everyone in America knows how to make bourbon. Quite obviously, they don’t. But I think sometimes people would think exactly what you said, “Oh, you’re an American whiskey distiller. Bourbon would be the natural go-to.” So how did you learn to make single malt whiskey?
M: Well, the first thing for me was looking at the history of whiskey and the history of single malt. All whiskeys can trace their lineage back to single malt distilleries in Scotland or Ireland 500 years ago. There’s that historical element to it but even right away, early in my career — I’m from the Pacific Northwest. We know that barley comes from here. You can buy malted barley here as well, and we’re also surrounded by a culture of malted barley. This is the Northwest. The craft brewing revolution started out here, so you see people using malted barley all the time. It’s not a big jump when you look at those raw ingredients. For us, it was very simple. This thing grows here, it’s used here all the time by brewers, and there’s a whole culture around that. Why should we not be making single malt? It’s interesting because that line of thought actually started right from the beginning in our business, and we started experimenting with that same line of thought and the way of thinking the way a brewery would. The way that brewers look at malt for flavor and things like that. At the same time, I was going through formal education in brewing and distilling science both at the Institute of Brewing and Distilling in London as well as Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was learning from scratch based on the cultural elements of the Pacific Northwest, while at the same time also getting the formal education that you’d get out of the U.K., and those two things eventually came together.
Z: Very cool. I know when Westland started, a lot of the projects that have since come to fruition were maybe not even conceived of or were ideas that seemed far in the future. You and I have chatted on a number of occasions in a number of different settings. For you, I think all along, the idea was to be able to add in more and more elements of the Pacific Northwest, as you said. For people who maybe aren’t as familiar with some of the products that are out there, what are some of the different ways, outside of barley, that you’ve brought elements of the Pacific Northwest into the whiskey?
M: Yeah, so if we zoom out to 30,000 feet, you look at, what does it mean to make something evocative of a place? To me, there are two parts to that equation. The first thing is the physical impacts of the place that you’re living in, the geography, the climate, the agriculture, and all of that stuff. As I said before, this is a barley-producing part of the world. We actually grow barley better here than they do in Scotland, believe it or not.
Z: That might be controversial.
M: I’ll go ahead and if anybody wants to challenge me on it, let’s do it. They can grow barley just fine up there. But seriously, this is one of the best places to grow barley in the world with the climate that we’ve got here. Anyway, there’s the fact that we have a local oak species here. Right away, in 2011, we were filling casks made out of garryana oak. We’ve got peat, but there’s this whole other part of the equation, which is the culture. I’m sure a lot of the listeners here will understand the term terroir, right? It’s a term that is used a lot in the wine industry, and when most people hear the term terroir, they think about wine and the slope of the vineyard and the exact calcium carbonate content and all of these other things. All that stuff is true, but one of the things that have gone missing in the translation of terroir is the cultural element. If you speak to someone who is French, they will include the culture of the town where things are made. That makes an impact. When we look at making a whiskey that is evocative of place or expressing terroir, it has to also include that culture and, in fact, it’s almost inescapable. We are making it, and we are a product of our culture. Very early on, we were leaning into these elements of Pacific Northwest culture. To me, I think the really beautiful thing about it was we didn’t actually do it on purpose. The Pacific Northwest and the West in general, which is a concentrated version of this idea of the possibility that exists in America more broadly, in theory. Now, here is the idea of the possibility of a future, and we don’t have a past here, right. There is no history of whiskey-making here, so everything’s about the future. That manifests itself in all sorts of different ways in our culture in the Northwest, and we started making whiskey with that mindset. We said, “Wait a second, the historical method of making whiskey to basically say that barley has no flavor impact or terroir doesn’t exist, we can challenge that.” There’s another way to make whiskey here. There’s great whiskey being made all over the world. That doesn’t mean it can’t be pushed further forward. That was really obvious to us. It was like, what are we missing? What’s the catch here? The reality is that it’s safe as a business to be traditional, but there’s an opportunity here. What you see from Westland is a reflection of these two things where we have all this stuff in terms of raw materials that we use here, but we also have this culture that is designed to push things forward and to discover new possibilities. Westland is very simply the fusion of those two ideas.
Z: Very cool. I want to talk a little bit more about garryana, the native species of oak in the Pacific Northwest. You mentioned that almost from the get-go, the idea was to incorporate it into the product. What is working with garryana like, and for people who aren’t familiar, how is it different from the traditional white oak that people use for bourbon?
M: Yeah, so the first thing to understand about American white oak, we call it the Quercus alba. It is colloquially known as American white oak or just white oak in the whiskey industry in that it grows basically from Missouri east, all the way to the Canadian border and all the way down to the Gulf. It grows in a huge part of this country. We use American oak for many of our expressions. In fact, the majority of them use new American oak, and it’s used for the bourbon industry. Those casks then go to Scotland and Japan and other places that make whiskey. It’s ubiquitous, the American white oak. Yet, it doesn’t grow here, and so for as much as we were interested in using it, we looked and said, “OK, Quercus alba doesn’t grow here but we do have this oak species that does grow here, Quercus garryana. What we learned very quickly was this species is radically different compared to Quercus alba and the flavor profile. First of all, it grows in such a narrow range. If nobody who is listening is familiar with Pacific Northwest geography, we live basically along this I-5 Corridor: Vancouver, B.C., Seattle, Olympia, Tacoma, Portland. All of these places, this little 50-mile-wide stretch of land. Fifty miles wide, that’s it. This is where this oak tree grows between the two mountain ranges, the Cascades and the coast ranges or the Olympics in Washington State. Immediately, the geographical restriction is really different compared to the American white oak. It’s also only growing in 5 percent of its former habitat because many people cut it down when they came to establish cities in the Pacific Northwest. First of all, it’s really rare. You don’t have these forests that are growing and managed like you have in Missouri and a bunch of other places. Now, when it comes to flavor, it’s wild. The easiest way for me to describe it is like the Quercus alba, like the American white oak, but everything is darker. If American white oak gives you caramel, baking spices, coconut — that’s the big three, I would say — Quercus garryana gives you all of that, but in darker forms. Caramel turns into molasses, generic spices become heavy cloves. It takes all of our fruitiness from our fermentation and turns that dark. The tropical fruits that we get from our Belgian saison yeast turn that into blackberry jam, blueberry jam, things like that. I think the coolest part about it is this barbecue-style smokiness, which has a high phenol content. If anybody is really familiar with peated whiskey, what you’re tasting is phenolics, these compounds. And it also is very high in Quercus garryana. I like burnt ends. If anybody’s familiar with burnt ends, which are amazing and it has that savory, smoky element to them. It’s so different not only from the Quercus alba but from the American white oak, but it’s so different from every other species of oak on the planet that’s being used to make whiskey. Right away, when we tasted it three months in, we filled a cask, and we had no idea what’s going to happen here. We tasted it three months in and thought that it tasted like Kansas City-style barbecue sauce. What is going on here? Over time, we learned to work with it, and you can’t use it in the same way that you can use the Quercus alba. For some of our expressions that are 100 percent pure Quercus alba, we thought, “OK, that’s too strong. It’s too strong, and we are more balanced with it.” There’s been a lot of learning that’s come along the way to use it in a slightly different way than the American white oak.
Z: OK, very cool. I want to come back to something you said about barley and this idea that in the traditional whiskey, distilling barley is flavorless. It’s there to produce fermentation or that at least the flavor is invariable. It’s always the same thing and I know that you mentioned that the Pacific Northwest and especially the area north of Seattle, the Skagit Valley, is a particularly great place to grow barley. I know that there’s some experimentation going beyond the traditional barley varieties that have been used for brewing and distilling. I know that’s a big piece of what you guys are doing and are looking to do in the future. Can you expand upon both what Westland is doing and also why it’s exciting?
M: Yeah, the first thing to understand is the shocking difference between the way that the single malt industry operates in its relationship to grain. This is actually true of most any whiskey distillery. This is mostly true of any whiskey-producing country and its relationship with grain. This is true with bourbon as well. It’s also true with rye. For single malt, which is what applies to us, the idea that single malt in Scotland had not picked up the idea of deriving flavor from malted barley, whereas the immediately adjacent, both geographically adjacent, but also the intellectually adjacent, idea of brewing had. For hundreds of years, brewers have been using dark-roasted malts for flavor. All of these major styles of beer produced around the world derive themselves in part or in whole from this idea of malted barley flavor. To me from the very beginning, that was shocking. Why is that not coming together?
Z: Was the idea that in the distillation process you’re just losing whatever differences you would find in the purely fermented product? That seems like it wouldn’t be true, but I wonder how much of that residual flavor from a different malt is going to remain?
M: There is some of that. Yes, absolutely. Especially in the more modern era, the way that people talk about malted barley, which is incorrect, to be clear. However, that is the way that they talk about it. Actually, the more that we were thinking about it, the really provocative answer is that whiskey itself — again, no matter which country it’s coming from — has treated itself as a commodity. Again, look at adjacent industries. Look at wine. If you were to ask a winemaker what grape varietal went into this wine and they said, “Well, it doesn’t matter,” that would be preposterous. Same thing if you ask a good chef. The same thing is true in the beer industry. The whiskey industry has been a commodity industry. A distillery will make something always the same, always in the highest-yielding form that they possibly can. Then, stocks would get bought and sold and traded like commodities because the whiskey industry only really survived because of blending. What has happened here is not so much a scientific observation of flavor that has happened to this industry; it is that the whiskey industry is really only just now beginning to realize that it can begin to think beyond the boundaries of commodity thinking. We don’t have to make the same thing out of the highest-yielding raw ingredients, the lowest common denominator that you possibly could. Let’s think like winemakers, let’s think like brewers, let’s think like chefs. That takes a minute for that mindset to sink in, but that’s something that was really evident to us right away. I think more and more people are figuring that out. Whiskey is at this period where it is booming, right? Whiskey has never boomed like it is today, globally. Now, I think people are going, OK, there can be something new in the world of whiskey.
Z: In your experience, what does it mean to move beyond a conventional or traditional style of malted barley, both on the production side and then obviously the finished product in the bottle?
M: Yeah, so the first thing was roasted malts. Thinking like a brewer, brewers are using dark-roasted malts. If you’re not familiar with dark-roasted malts, it is just like roasting coffee beans. You take malted barley, which is sprouted barley, dried. You roast it like a coffee bean, and it develops different flavors: nutty, chocolaty, pastry, cookie, tobacco, leather, all sorts of different things are developed naturally by roasting malted barley. That, literally from the first cask we ever filled, was the pursuit. That’s become a core part of a house style when you buy a Westland American Oak, Westland Sherrywood, even Westland Peated, which also includes peated malts — what you were also experiencing is this use of roasted malts, which we call the five malt recipe here at Westland. A pale malt that has 70 percent of the blend and four roasted malts bring the spectrum of malt flavor. If anybody’s had a Westland out there before, guaranteed, you will have tasted the product of this thinking of this idea of using roasted malts. There’s more, but the other part of it is varietal thinking or variety thinking, which again, looks at the adjacent wine industry. Winemakers know the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. If you drink wine, you understand those things, but that doesn’t exist in the whiskey industry because what the whiskey industry asks of the grain industry is the same: conformity. Make it the same. No deviation.
Z: Well, also the lowest price possible. Right?
M: Well, it is that, but you can get things that are yielding relatively well, but they’re just not even interested in asking for something that is different. If you’re a distillery that has been operating for 200 years in Scotland and you’ve got a flavor profile — you’ve got what we call a house style — that is not reliant on the malted barley, it’s the shape of the stills and the technique, or the type of casks you put it in and all the rest of that stuff, you don’t want deviation if you want to make a consistent product if consistency is your goal. This has been a big part of the issue is that nobody has wanted to deviate from what is their house style and the way they look at malt. Malt, to them, is a canvas upon which the rest of your distillery showcases different flavor profiles. That’s a really different way of thinking and saying there can be different varietal capabilities. At any given time, in the Western world — this is true of the U.S., Canada, Europe, and the U.K — there are five varieties of barley, give or take, that are approved and are grown by everybody. We’ve produced whiskeys out of 20 different barley varieties here at Westland, which is more, I think, than the whole Scottish whiskey industry combined. Now, this is where it gets really challenging. In order to do this, you need to go out into the wilderness a little bit. The reason why commodities exist is for safety. A farmer in the middle of eastern Washington can grow a barley variety. He can ship it to a grain elevator. He doesn’t need to know the operator of the grain elevator. The person at the grain elevator can mix it up with all sorts of other barley from other farms that can go to a maltster. Don’t need to know the maltster. And the maltster can ship it on to any brewery or distillery. That is true, generally, across the Western world in our regards to grain. When you get out of that system and there’s a guaranteed price for that commodity, all of a sudden you need to find those connections. The farmer needs to know the distiller, and at the very least, the maltster who can guarantee that they’re going to buy it. I’m showing it on my phone, which is a pretty terrible way for the listeners to see this, but here’s a red barley variety. I had no idea that stuff existed. If you’re a farmer and you want to plant a red barley variety to turn into something interesting, you need to know that you’re going to be able to sell it. It totally restructures the way that we as a community need to interact with each other in terms of our relationship to agriculture. This is why when we started the business, we were able to get into roasted malts right away. That exists, and you can do that with the commodity system. If you want to go off-piste, away from the standard, you need to bring together the A team. You need to get the crew together who say, “OK, I’m the maltster, and I’m going to help you do this. I’m the grain breeder, I am going to help you do this. I’m a farmer, and I’m interested in growing this grain. And I’m the distiller, and we’re going to make whiskey out of it.” And eventually, the fifth one, which is the most important, is the consumer that’s interested in buying something like that.
Z: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the steps in that process, and let’s start with the one that was most interesting to me because I just learned it, which is that now Westland is also a farmer. Can you talk a little bit about your farm project and how that came about and what that looks like?
M: The farm project is very much breaking news, so this is quite exciting to be able to speak about it because we kept it a secret for about a year. The farm project is about furthering our connection to agriculture. When we got into this process of wanting to use different barley varieties, as I mentioned, you need to have all these other people. But there’s a tremendous amount of risk here. The first thing is, if you want to go outside of the commodity system for grains, there’s no funding for that. There’s no money for that. We are now fully funding a Ph.D. research student up at Washington State University who is focused on finding these new barley varieties that can work outside the commodity system. He’s looking for three things. He’s looking to make sure that they are economically viable. Get us something that tastes great. We’re grown organically, but if a farmer can’t earn a living growing it, it’s useless. There are no subsidies for barley. Even if there were, I don’t like it on principle. A farmer should be able to earn a living. It’s not an unreasonable thing to ask. Second big thing is to thrive under low-impact environmental conditions. A lot of people say it’s tough to grow organic grain. But that’s because the varieties of grain that were chosen by the commodity system were chosen to thrive under heavily sprayed conditions, so they never sought it out. So, looking for certified organic, salmon-safe, which is a big thing out here in the Northwest, and a regenerative agricultural system is really big now. It’s carbon fixing, putting carbon back into the ground. The last thing is looking for flavor. Looking for novelty in flavor, not conformity, which is what the commodity industry wants, but looking for nuance and novelty — totally the opposite direction. We are fully funding his research there, and that doesn’t belong to us. It’ll be publicly available. All the information doesn’t belong to the university, either. There’s still a risk, and if you’re a farmer, you’re going to say, “OK, Westland, WSU Mount Vernon, this crazy red barley variety that you want me to grow? That’s nuts. I have no idea how it’s going to grow on my farm.” They’re not just growing the barley itself, which in itself is a risk, but barley for farmers here is a rotation crop. They don’t grow barley because they need to grow barley. In the Skagit Valley, they grow 80 different crops of commercial significance. Barley is the 80th most valuable crop. It is the least valuable crop they can grow, but they need to grow it because barley does a couple of great things. For every acre of barley that you grow as a farmer, you will yield three tons of barley to the acre. Three tons will go to the maltster. It puts eight tons of organic matter back into the ground, so if you are growing tulips or potatoes or spinach seed or other things that make them a lot of money, it takes a lot of soil. You need to build it back up. Barley does that and does it really, really well. The other big thing that barley does is in heavy clay-based soils we have here in Skagit, the root systems are really strong. It breaks the clay soils apart. And the last thing that it helps with is it breaks the disease cycle, so they need to be growing barley anyway. When you say I want you to grow this red barley variety, you’re also asking them to not just take a risk on the barley crop, but you also ask what impact will that make on their tulips on the next rotation, which is where they really make their money.
M: This is where the farm begins to make a ton of sense for us. We said, “OK, that’s a fair point. Let’s take the risk with you.” We bought this farm, and we basically found this perfect space for us, which is 80 acres. Only about 20 of them are zoned AG. It slopes gently up to the top where the top is not suited for agriculture. We’re putting new rack houses up there, but at the very bottom of the slope, the main 20 acres will be used to take the products that are coming out of this research with the Washington State University lab in Mount Vernon and test it at scale and test rotation crops. If you’re a farmer, you would say, “OK, what is the impact on my rotations going to be?” Here is a way where we can say, “All right, we’ll grow potatoes or radishes on the next rotation and tell you what the impact is going to be so that you can take that with confidence and begin to grow it.” And that’s what it’s about. I think it’s a shared risk. If you put all the risk on the farmer, which is frankly how our agricultural system in this country works, all the risk is put on the farmer and very little of the reward goes to them. The farm is about sharing risk and being on the cutting edge with them.
Z: Very cool. This prompts a couple of questions. One, we’ll stick with a farming one and then to distilling as well on this topic. On the farming side, one of the big sticking points in addition potentially to what you mentioned, which is the risk of what the impact over time with some of these new barley varieties might be to the farm or to their land. So it’s great that Westland wants this. I would imagine that for any of these varieties to take hold at any scale, there have to be other uses. It’s not as if Seattle is awash in single malt distilleries. It is awash in breweries. How do breweries potentially play a role in building this alternate barley economy?
M: Well, you’re exactly right. And this is part of this idea of going outside of the safety of the nest. Everyone knows what’s going to happen in the commodity system. The breweries, at least you know what you’re going to get if you’re a brewery or a distillery. And that’s worth something, frankly. It’s worth something to us as producers. It’s worth something to the maltsters, the farmers, and actually to consumers as well. In order to do this, there needs to be, in my mind, a very clear payoff. If you’re going to go outside of the commodity system, there needs to be a point to it. There’s a couple of really big bonuses here, which is that we can go for salmon-safe and certified organic agriculture, and that’s great. By the way, all of our early sources by 2025 will be from sustainable agricultural sources like that. But if you want people to do that — and it costs more money to do that — what is the selling point? All of this sounds great in theory, but you need to be able to sell. I need to be able to sell this whiskey eventually. There’s a story that comes with that, and I think the story is super compelling on its own. But it’s a payoff in the liquid. The liquid is what matters, whether distillery or brewery. That’s what really makes a difference, so that’s where seeking out that flavor from the ground level in the research and testing it in brewing environments comes in. They can test the distilling environment. The fact that this is open-ended and this research is being done, a brewery can jump in and say, “Hey, what is the status of this? What would be the impact there?” We need that. Besides the fact that I think ethically, not owning the research is the right thing to do for Westland. It’s not really going to ever catch on as a movement, as a new approach to agriculture, if it’s not widely adopted. That means you need to have other people who benefit — the brewing industry, other distilleries, and actually beyond just the Pacific Northwest. It’s about community. It’s about bringing all these people to the table. Look at what is possible when you begin to use this red barley variety example. Use it. Take some.
Z: On that note, it seems pretty straightforward to me that as a brewer, I could take red barley, make a beer with it, make a few different beers with it, and brewing is a month-long process-ish. I can do it in relatively small batches. I can taste it and go, “Oh, interesting. This is how this new strain of barley expresses itself.” And maybe I really like it. Or I think this could potentially be blended with something else or finished with something else. I am assuming that brewing is very much about thinking about these flavors. And with the relatively short time span, you can experiment a lot. That is why all these different fascinating styles emerged over the last couple of decades because you can do it on a short time scale. For distilling, not so much. How do you take a look at a raw input like red barley and get to the point of understanding or having some sense of how it will express itself in a finished product after years in a cask without just doing that. Now, I think just doing that is super cool, but presumably you have to have some idea before you start filling a bunch of casks with an unusual barley strain. How do you even see that far into the future?
M: The answer is we kind of need to know where that’s going. I think Westland’s perspective on risk management is bordering on reckless. And I’m joking, but when it comes to how much new stuff we source, a lot of distilleries would study this to death. In the commodity industry, the small deviation of a new variety that is basically bred to be exactly the same as the old one, they study that for years and years. When you say, all right, we’re going way out here with this six-row black barley variety, you’re really jumping out to the unknown and you’re taking on a lot of risk. A big part of that is, philosophically, nothing will ever get done if you go slow. It takes some risk, and we’re going to try it. Again, if we’re not able to buy this barley at scale, then the farmers aren’t going to grow it and the maltsters are not going to malt it. If you want to be a part of this, you’re going to have to jump in. Again, it’s part of that sharing risk, but there is some underlying science behind it. The first thing is, where do we derive flavor from in whiskey from barley? A lot of distilleries today will say that there is no such thing as leading from behind, which is nonsense. When you look at it, there’s a couple of things. One, there’s oil content in the barley. This is getting very heavy into the science here, folks. Buckle up. Fatty acids and fatty acid esters are responsible for a lot of the fruity components of flavor in whiskey straight across the board. That will vary between varieties. It varies between grains and also varies between varieties. A lot of individual compounds in barley, like amino acids, will undergo fermentation, and the yeast will eat some acids and do something interesting with them. They’ll disregard others in how individual strains react to individual amino acids to produce different flavors. That is known and understood. Now, how that applies to new barley varieties, that connection has not been made yet. But I think it’s fairly intuitive. The other big thing, which is interesting, especially for everybody who’s listening who’s interested in wine, is that a lot of these colored barley varieties, the reds, blues, and purples are coming from compounds called anthocyanins.
Z: Oh, really?
M: I see you understand. For people who aren’t super familiar, anthocyanins are linked to the color in wine grape skins but also linked to varietal flavor. If you’ve got more information on that, please don’t ask me because I’m not an expert. However, those anthocyanins in barley, it stands to reason that if that’s happening in wine that is also happening with these varieties. Interestingly enough, in black barley varieties, the color pigmentation black is melanin.
Z: Oh, interesting.
M: It’s actually a totally different thing. We don’t really know yet what the rationale is there, even though we’re using black barley varieties, too. There’s a lot of theory that’s drawn from, again, adjacent entries. Frankly, this is how we figured out the roasted malt thing. There was no established literature on roasted malt flavor in whiskey. But if you look at the types of flavors that are produced by roasted malts, you do the math in your head and look at the chemistry and say, is this going to produce flavor? And we were right for a lot of that stuff. With this, it’s following a lot of the same logic. To be very clear, we’re going to be wrong about some things. That is part of the nature of it, but it’s a hell of a lot more fun to just give it a go, and this is how you really drive change, too.
Z: Excellent. So one last question for you. You talked about driving change, and you talked about this idea of stepping outside this existing commodity market for barley. Putting on your prognosticator cap for a moment: Looking 10 to 15 years in the future, is your goal to be outside of the commodity market entirely when it comes to grain or all inputs? Or do you think that there’s still a flavor argument in favor of commodity barley?
M: I certainly think that there is a flavor argument in favor of commodity barley. Maybe the better way to put it is the known quantity. Again, the risk elements of it. A lot of the barleys in the commodity industry are chosen to not have a ton of flavor. But it’s not that it tastes bad, especially when you look at roasted malts. Roasted malts, you’re taking this commodity barley industry. For everything is available today — we’re changing that but everything that is available today in roasted malts — is the commodity variety but roasted in different ways. Again, that’s how all these different beer styles are created, and they’re wonderful. It’s not that we’re lacking there, necessarily. It’s just that there can be a parallel system that develops that the commodity industry cannot do, by definition. It will cost more money to do that. We hope that that delta comes down in time, but by 2025, we will be at 100 percent sustainable agriculture — salmon-safe, regenerative agriculture. Also, by 2025, probably 75 percent, at least, of the barley we source, which today is an acre of barley every single day, will be off the commodity system. That is really a big deal for us here.
Z: And you can’t see the look on Matt’s face, but it’s excitement and maybe just a little bit of fear.
M: That’s exactly how I feel, but that’s the fun stuff. We’re getting into these amazing things that I could go on here. The research that’s going on with barley right now, we are developing new barley varieties with the WSU Breadlab that have higher genetic diversity as a variety, which means that they’re not as genetically pure, which means they can adapt to climate change better. In the rapidly changing climate that we have, more genetic diversity within a stock you sow in a field means that it can adapt to heatwaves, floods, and a variety of things like that. It can react really quickly to that as a species, but then, it also changes what it means when we say malted barley. That’s quite dramatic. When you say malted barley, what people think of in their heads is this pale tan thing that all looks the same, malts the same, tastes the same everywhere you get it in North America. And now, we’re saying it’s not going to look the same. You buy malted barley, even this red-brown variety, it will look different within it. It’s such a cool place to go, but there’s the risk. We’re jumping off into this place where nobody knows about this stuff yet. This is the cutting edge. To loop it back to your earlier question about beer, we’ve got some time to show people what is possible. That is what is happening right now. We’re working on these projects, and some of these barley varieties won’t ever sell until 2030, but we want to be ahead of the game here. We think very much that this is the future.
Z: Excellent. Well, Matt, thank you so much. Always fascinating to talk and to hear what you and your team here at Westland are experimenting with and envisioning for the future. Again, thanks so much for your time, and also very nice to see you in person.
M: Yeah, great to see you as well. If I can add one more quick pitch here for everybody. If you’re interested in seeing what this is like, this work that we’re talking about in terms of seeking out new barley varieties and different agricultural systems, we’ve been doing since 2012. The first whiskey that is made from this is just now launching.
Z: Oh, wow.
M: It’s called Colere, which is a Latin word that means to cultivate. We thought it would be a perfect term for reestablishing relationships in agriculture. Colere, Edition One is just launching now. It may be the most important whiskey that we ever made.
Z: Very cool. And we’ll include a link in the description if people want to know more about it. Thanks so much, Matt, I really appreciate it.
M: You are very welcome.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. “VinePair” is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.