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From barley seeding to beer sipping

Long-time Alberta farmers tap into vertical integration with malt barley

The photo above may look like some Alberta grain farmers taking a break in a barley field, but they are really brewery executives collecting inventory for an inter-national microbrewing industry.

These are members of the Hilton family (Hilton Ventures) a fifth-generation farm near Strathmore, Alta., (just east of Calgary) and they are farmers having a harvest meal in the field. But in the past few years they have been producing malting barley for specialty breweries, and about a year ago they opened their own malting company and microbrewery operation in Strathmore — it’s called Origin Brewing & Malting Co. They produce malt for other small breweries, as well as their own beer brand.

I am pretty familiar with the pasture-to-plate concept of beef, chicken and pork products, for example, but running into Origin Malting & Brewing on an Alberta Farm Writers tour in June, may be the first time I have run into Alberta grain farmers who have vertically integrated into the beer business.

I first met some of the Hiltons about 30 years ago. Gordon Hilton, who farmed with his sons, Spencer and Sterling, was one of the pioneers in the conservation farming movement — direct seeding, “keep your stubble up” all that good stuff. Well, the family is still at it and then some. They got out of the beef side of the business but continue producing crops and now the next generation is involved.

With the end of the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly Hilton Ventures was among the first Western Canada farms to begin selling their high-quality malt barley directly to a California brewing company, Lagunitas Brewing Co. in the Napa Valley. They teamed up with a group of producers to form Chinook Arch Growers, a group of 15 Alberta and Saskatchewan farmers that grow about 95 per cent of the 30,000 tonnes of barley that the California brewery uses each year.

And as the craft brewing industry developed in Alberta (Western Canada) the Hiltons saw an opportunity to supply malt barley to specialty breweries. But to take it a step further they decided to get into the malting business as well, says Spencer Hilton. The Hiltons partnered with long-time grain industry marketer Chris Chivilo of W.A. Grain and in mid-2017 they opened the Origin Malting and Brewing Co. in Strathmore.

Origin Malting & Brewing is managed and operated by a young and talented group. Spencer Hilton’s daughter, Meleah, and son-in-law, Kyle Geeraert, are an integral part of the operation — Kyle worked on grain and beef farms and grain marketing before becoming operations manager at Origin. Meleah is the digital marketing and taproom manager.

Stacey Hilton studied business and accounting at college and then decided to do some travelling — 29 countries on six continents — over a few years before returning to Strathmore and joining the new family business as accounting manager.

Nick Patterson, born and raised in nearby Standard, was planning to launch his own craft brewery before joining Origin as head brewer. Lane Gordon who grew up on the family farm at Cluny, east of Strathmore is head maltster. While Mark Printz who was born and raised in Olds, studied sales and marketing and worked in the food service industry is sales manager.

And the company also has a dedicated taproom staff as well. By the looks of photos on the company website, if you’re looking for work and you’re over 35 you need not apply. Except for product sampling, this could be a young person’s game. Learn more about Origin Malting & Brewing Co.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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