From field to foam: craft brewing industry taps growth in the Upper Midwest

What do you think about when you’re driving down a rural road? 

Do you look at the sky and imagine who is on the planes gliding through the clouds?

Look at the cattle and imagine what is going through their heads?

Scan fields of grain, and wonder where all that golden silkiness will land?

The farmers you see on those roads think about harvest, or next year’s planting, or their children’s futures. Many of them dream of a day when rain comes at the perfect time, hail never falls, and prices are fair.

Then there are the farmers who dream just a little more craftily. 

That would be the Stobers.

John and Donovan Stober are a father-son farming team near Goodrich, North Dakota, and Jared is a son living in Bismarck, North Dakota. John and Donovan are members of Verendrye Electric Cooperative, a Basin Electric Class C member. When the kids were growing up, the family was getting out of grain farming and into exotic animals, such as bison. Later, the family took up flax and sold products in 16,000 retail locations across the country.

Around 2015, the Stobers got that itch to start something new again. Where would they take their farming business next; what would be their next value add? 

The craft brewing industry was taking off around that time, and hops were the first thing to come to mind. Jared starting looking into it, but the work to grow and harvest hops was tedious, and the competition was pretty fierce.

The Stobers stopped and looked around. “The barley aspect was literally being grown in our backyard,” Jared Stober says. “So we put two and two together and started looking into what it takes.”

They had the fields to grow barley, and they had enough know-how to determine what was needed on the farm — some dedicated grain bins, augers, and trucks so there would be no cross-contamination.

The Stobers were in good company. Lots of farmers in the upper Midwest grow barley for beer. 

But the Stobers went a step further and started Two Track Malting.

Two Track Malting uses barley, wheat, or rye, grown either on the Stober farm, or more recently, grown on another family farm near Belfield, North Dakota, to create malt for craft brewers.

Greg Kessel, a partner in Two Track Malting, also serves as vice chair of the National Barley Growers Association and the North Dakota Barley Growers Association. He says 95% of the barley grown in the United States goes to the beer industry. In North Dakota, the total acreage devoted to barley has fluctuated between 400,000 acres to more than 1 million acres over the last eight years. In 2019, Montana was the top barley grower, followed by North Dakota, and then Idaho. 

The malting operation is located in Lincoln, North Dakota, and is a member of Capital Electric Cooperative, a Basin Electric Class C member headquartered in Bismarck, North Dakota. “We were fortunate enough to find someone to be the brains behind the operation (Chris Fries),” says Jared Stober, chief executive officer for Two Track Malting. “We scaled up a smaller system to our system, and then crossed our fingers on a few things we engineered ourselves and had fabricated, that luckily worked. We were up and running fairly quickly.”

Chris Fries is Two Track Malting’s chief operating officer and head maltster. Today, Two Track Malting sends malt to about 75 brewers in 25 states. Some of the brewers are home brewers, many are craft breweries such as Laughing Sun Brewery in Bismarck, and Knuckle Brewing Company in Sturgis, South Dakota. Fries ships malt as far as New Jersey and Florida.

“You can’t make beer without malt. Our goal was to give breweries a story behind their craft beer,” Fries says. “They already have a story when it’s local beer, but now they can make it more local. … Even the breweries that are outside our region, they can tell customers, ‘We talked to the farmers and maltsters, we get these flavors because of this or that.’”

Two Track Malting partnered with Greg (mentioned earlier) and Stacey Kessel of Arrow K Farms in Belfield, North Dakota, members of Roughrider Electric Cooperative, a Basin Electric Class C member. The Kessels developed a proprietary hard white wheat variety for malting, called AKF - Astro. “It has a hazy quality. Gives the beer a good mouthfeel, good flavor,” Fries says. They are also working with North Dakota State University on a barley variety called AKF - Brewski, which is also grown at Arrow K Farms.

But how does the unique story behind Two Track Malting’s product make it to the beer drinker? Fries brought his malting skills to the table, but he brought his web technology background, as well.

Every bag of malt is printed with a QR code that identifies the specs, all the way down to the exact field where the grain was grown. And Two Track provides their breweries with posters, coasters, and table tents, so beer drinkers can scan the code with their smartphone and read all about their beer’s origin story at Two Track.

Jared Stober says the traceability is one of their best selling points with brewers. “My brother (Donovan) tracks everything. He can pinpoint where the barley came from, what was put on that barley, when it was planted and harvested. That’s information that can get lost when you’re growing barley for a large malthouse. You become one number of 10,000 for a supplier,” Jared Stober says.

The farmer grows the barley, but is usually the least recognized in the process. Two Track Malting changes that. “It’s a sense of pride, because you spend all that time growing and harvesting,” Jared Stober says. “So you know [your barley] is going into some beer, and with our operation, you know exactly which beer it’s going into.”

Beaver Creek Brewery, Wibaux, Montana

If you spin your wheels down Interstate-94 in Montana and stop in Wibaux at just the right time of year, there is a chance you can get a taste of Beaver Creek Brewery’s most popular seasonal beer, Chokecherry Wheat. But the chance is slim.

Sandy Stinnett, head brewer, says he brewed 40 kegs of Chokecherry Wheat in 2019, and it sold out within 60 hours, or 16 retail days at the brewery. The beer is made using chokecherries that locals bring in by the gallon-bag or even five-gallon bucket. In return, the pickers get a gift certificate for some free beer or merchandise. 

Beaver Creek opened in 2008 after an 18-month renovation of an abandoned grocery store in town. At the time, there were 16 craft breweries in Montana. Today, there are nearly 100. 

Stinnett says the ancillary businesses growing around the craft beer industry have been interesting to watch. For example, there are now “ma and pop” distributors catering to craft beer. “You’ll get those phone calls, say, from Fargo, North Dakota, and they’ll tell you they’re coming along and picking up kegs of craft beer and move them to bars, restaurants,” he says.

“Creates a lot of opportunity in Montana. Not only for the brewers, but for the taprooms that hire individuals in small towns,” Stinnett says. “Then there’s glass; I get my growlers and logoed pint glasses from a small town, Stevensville, Montana. That feller opened up when he saw the brewery industry starting to grow early on. He enjoys a booming business right now, so much so that he can’t keep up with all the breweries in Montana.”

John Sokoloski, Goldenwest Electric Cooperative, a Basin Electric Class C member located in Wibaux, says of the brewery and its adjacent restaurant and music venue, “We live in a pretty small town, about 400 people, and for us to have access to this caliber of food and drink is so appreciated,” Sokoloski says. “We know people travel from miles around to come to the brewery, but our members and employees are able to visit right here in their own community. In fact, we held our employee Christmas party there this year.”

TractorLift Brewery, Humboldt, Iowa

Larry Beilke’s love for good beer goes all the way back to his military days. The 21-year veteran was stationed in Germany in the late 1980s. “When I came back to the United States, I thought, 'Why don’t we have beer here, like they do in Germany?’”

Fast forward many years to a Christmas party where Beilke received a Mr. Beer kit. “I spent all winter in my basement reading and learning to make beer,” he says.

He kept brewing at home, upgrading from the beer kit to all-grain brewing, earning a few blue ribbons at the Iowa State Fair and the admiration of his friends.

Several more years later, a group of friends in Humboldt, Iowa, were looking to buy a local restaurant that was for sale. “They came to me and said, ‘Hey we think your beer is pretty good, what do you think about opening a brewery and making beer for the restaurant?’”

Beilke, whose full-time job is as a Midland Power Cooperative member service representative, sold his first beer from TractorLift Brewery in 2016. ”I am strictly a wholesale producer, so I only have four customers,” he says. The customers are two bars and two restaurants, all located in Humboldt. “The end goal would be to have a taproom of my own,” he says. 

His time working for the co-op means his brewery is energy efficient. “We have an air source heat pump and use a high-efficiency water heater,” Beilke says. “We’re conservative with our water. The cold water that comes into the brewery is used to chill the nearly completed batch of beer. As it is pulls the heat off the beer, it is gradually warming the once-cold water to be used in the next batch of beer. Doing it this way allows me to use both less energy and less water.”

Beilke sees huge value in using local suppliers whenever possible, which includes growlers, pint glasses, t-shirts, tap handles, and logo design and printing. Aside from those services, his daughters help with bookkeeping and marketing. “On occasion I can talk one of them into helping fill kegs,” he says. He works in the brewery in the evenings and weekends, spending roughly 20 hours a week there.

 “People are always asking for what’s new, and being smaller like I am gives me the flexibility to change beers regularly,” Beilke says. His most unique brew? A blueberry stout. His most popular? The cream ale.