For the avid craft beer lover in Alberta, Red Shed Malting is a name that you often come across. Whether it’s on a brewery posting about their latest collaboration, the side of a can as part of the ingredients or accumulating yet another Community Builder Industry Award at the Alberta Beer Awards, Red Shed Malting seems to be everywhere. That’s no coincidence – with multiple generations of the Hamill family running all sides of the operation, there is no way you can enjoy craft beer in Alberta without hearing the name.
Hamill Farms, the family’s homestead and farm, dates back to 1929, when Bernard Hamill brought his family to Alberta from Ireland. Ever since then, Hamills have been growing barley on their acreage near Penhold. Now, the fourth-generation family farm is run by John and Susie Hamill, who grow about 1200 tonnes of malt-quality barley per year. After their son, Joe, began brewing his own beer, the question came up as to how to get John’s barley into Joe’s beer. The business that followed has become a pillar of the Alberta craft beer scene.
At the time when this was occurring, no one in Alberta had a malt roaster. While Canada Malting and Rahr were processing base malts, the specialty malt sector had no one processing in the West. It seemed as though every brewery was importing their specialty malts from either the USA or Europe. That’s when the vision for Red Shed was born. They could create specialty malts right here in Alberta so that more beer styles could be made with 100% Canadian ingredients.
While John manages the farm (and cleaning of the barley) and Susie handles the administration and finances, the next generation of Hamills manage the operations side of malting. Joe handles all the production and quality control, in addition to most of the day-to-day operations. His brother Matt takes point on sales, focusing on industry connections and brewery outreach, as well as looking at community initiatives to get involved with, and big picture future planning. Joe’s wife, Daelyn, manages their social media and marketing, and rumour has it that Matt’s wife is also starting to dip her toes into the family business as well. It really is a family partnership, with each person bringing their own skills and aptitudes to create a cohesive business.
Alberta is already producing some of the most sought-after barley in the world, due to its ideal growing conditions. There has to be the right amount of daylight and frost-free days, and the right soil conditions. Alberta’s climate is just right to produce malt quality barley – especially right along the Highway 2 corridor through Central Alberta.
That has led to the province producing about half of all Canadian barley, and about a third of all barley in North America. Combining this top-quality barley with the exceptional craftsmanship of malting, brewing, and distilling, Alberta has the ingredients to produce some of the best beer and spirits in the world.
So, in 2014, Red Shed Malting was born (and yes, it is in a red shed). Their custom-built malt plant includes a high-end Turkish roaster, which was the first of its kind in Canada. While Hamill Farms produces around 1,200 tonnes of malt-quality barley per year, Red Shed will process about 200 tonnes in a year (4 tonnes a week), with some extra on-hand in case of a poor crop year. The droughts of 2021 caused a malt shortage in Canada, but Red Shed has managed to avoid the impacts due to sustainable farming practices, adequate subsoil moisture going into the growing season, a couple of timely rains, and some luck.
From Grain to Glass
Malt is often called the heart of beer, providing the complex carbohydrates and sugars needed for fermentation. Malting is the process of converting raw grains into either the base or specialty malt needed to brew different beer styles. This process has not changed much over thousands of years. There are three main steps: Steeping, Germination, and Kilning.
The first thing that the maltster will do when they receive the fresh grain is to clean it. Red Shed will clean all the malt they need for the year and store the rest for future use. From there, the grain gets steeped (soaked in water, then rested, and repeated) to increase the moisture level from 13% to 44%, which is achieved over 48 hours and in three wet cycles. The grain absorbs oxygen and starts the growth of the kernel. Once the grain is at the optimal moisture level, it grows steadily, and they transfer it over to the germination bed.
It will spend four days in the germination bed, being rotated every few hours so the rootlets don’t get tangled. Maintaining even temperature and moisture levels is critical so that the kernels all grow at the same rate. In this stage, they measure the progress by checking the acrospire (the rootlet that grows out of the kernel) length. Once it’s reached ¾ of the length of the kernel, it’s time for the kiln.
Kilning removes the excess moisture in the kernels to stop the germination phase. By adding hot air underneath, they will bring the moisture down to 4%, creating a shelf-stable base malt. Base malts will make up about 80% – 90% of the malt used in an average beer recipe. Adjusting the temperature and airflow near the end of the process creates different colours and flavours of malt. For the darker, coloured malts, the malt will undergo one more step in the drum roaster.
The roaster creates the specialty malts that Red Shed has become known for. It can reach higher temperatures so they can achieve the exact colour and flavour profile they want. These specialty malts are used by craft brewers to create different beer styles, adding more colour, aroma, and flavour.
Local, Sustainable, Traceable
Every bag of malt that goes out their door is labelled with the farmer, the field, the variety, and the year the grains were grown. This is a commitment that Red Shed makes to ensure their products are local, sustainable, and traceable. Working with Decisive Farming on their precision agriculture, they work to make sure they’re getting the most efficient use out of the inputs that they put onto the land.
To keep the nutrients in the soil, they rotate their crops through different plots from as far north as the Red Deer Airport to as far south as Innisfail. In addition to barley, Hamill Farms also grows wheat and canola, and recently introduced peas and oats into the rotation. Within those crops, there are also different varieties. With their crop rotation every three or four years, the barley being malted at Red Shed is being grown on the same quarter section as the malt house. You can’t get a more local story than that!
Red Shed Malting currently supplies a variety of malts to about half of the craft breweries in Alberta. Some of the breweries use their base malt to provide the sugars for the fermentation process, while others capitalize on their specialty malts to create a pantheon of beer styles that rivals any booming craft beer scene. The specialty malts are where Red Shed really shines.
At any given time, Red Shed has about sixteen different malt varieties. From their base malts like the Parkland Pale and Penhold Wheat Malt, to their Black Bird (the first black malt ever drum roasted in Alberta), they have a malt that is perfect for every craft beer. They will also do special contract malts, and even have a secret malt currently hiding out in an unlabeled bin!
One of the favourite collaborations they’ve done is with Blindman Brewing and 24-2 Draft Horses, a local farm that grow and harvest their malt-grade barley all by old-school horse-powered equipment. The barley is then custom malted by Red Shed to produce a complex but delicate English style malt. Blindman Brewing goes on to create the 24-2 Stock Ale, which is one of the most hyper-local beers to be produced, with it being locally grown, harvested, cleaned, malted, and brewed. Stock Ales are traditional British ales that are strong and fruity – closely related to barley wine. It’s not a style typically seen in modern times, adding to the uniqueness of this collaboration. Some of last year’s batch was also aged in a bourbon barrel with some Brettanomyces yeast, adding depth, oakyness, and funkiness into the flavour profile.
Their products are not only used by Alberta breweries, but also some distilleries as well. One of these, Bridgeland Distillery in Calgary, uses Red Shed Penhold Wheat and Barley to create a bourbon-style spirit that won gold at the Alberta Spirits Awards, and Silver at the Canadian Artisan Spirit Awards for Young Whisky. (The Barrel Aged 24-2 Stock Ale also won Gold at the 2021 Alberta Beer Awards.)
Central Alberta’s Lasting Legacy
Hamill Farms and Red Shed Malting have become an industry hub for Alberta’s booming craft beer scene, which has been gaining national and global recognition. In addition to local breweries winning many Canadian Beer Awards and even some World Beer Awards, Central Alberta is also home to many agricultural research and training facilities to ensure the legacy will continue for generations to come. Olds College is home not only to one of only three brewmaster programs in Canada, but they also have facilities dedicated to smart farming, breeding, and other agricultural researching and technologies. They also work with Alberta Barley and Canadian Malt Barley Technical Centre to host tours showcasing the latest varieties and Alberta advantages.
As Joe and Matt raise their young families, it’s easy to picture the legacy of Hamill Farms, and now Red Shed, will be in great hands as they carry on the traditions of the Hamill family for years to come.