Raising Spirits

How one family transformed a generations-old farm into a thriving value-added business, with a little “magic” and the best equipment in the field.

By Jamie Cole

Curtis Lawrence-Ross scrambles around the back room at Red Hart Brewing in Red Deer, Alberta, flipping the levers and turning the valves in the final stages of making a batch of beer. “I also push a squeegee,” he laughs. “But I make all the beer here at Red Hart.”

A glance at the menu board out front reveals a wide range of options for the beer connoisseur, from light and citrusy to bold and hoppy. All of it starts with, of course, water; “The water here is perfect for making malty beers,” says Lawrence-Ross. “And the malt here is some of the best on the planet.”

Then he points to stacks and stacks of 50-pound bags of malt, with a distinctive, bright red logo on the label: “And when the Red Shed boys get their hands on it, it turns into some kind of magic.”

The “Red Shed” boys are, collectively, the Hamills, a farm family just a few minutes away from the brewery. The Hamill farm in Penhold, Alberta, has been in the family since 1929, but this generation of Hamills has redefined the farm’s mission. About 8 years ago, that shift transformed Hamill Farms into Red Shed Malting.

“Alberta grows half the barley in Canada, and one-third of the barley in North America,” says Matt Hamill, who along with his brother, Joe, and father, John, farms wheat, canola, peas and oats … and of course, barley. Joe’s wife, Daelyn, and John’s wife, Susie, round out the business side of Red Shed Malting. “Alberta is, in my opinion, the best place in the world to be growing barley,” says Matt.

And malting it for craft beer and spirits was the best idea.

Sue recalls the dinner table conversations that moved the farm from selling all their crops as commodities to starting a malting business. “We were growing barley on the farm. I thought we were already growing malted barley,” she says. “And then once I understood what malting was, I kept saying, ‘Well, when do WE brew beer? And the boys were saying, ‘No, Mom, we don’t brew, we malt,” she laughs. “It was a learning curve.”

“It was a way to get me and my brother back onto the farm,” says Joe, who had already been experimenting with brewing beer and was noticing the craft beer explosion already happening in the States. “Around here, it’s really hard to increase your acreage or income any other way… So, we found a way to value add our crop.”

“As a maltster, we play the connector between the farmer and the brewer,” says Matt. “We are processing barley, wheat and oats into usable ingredients for our brewers.”

It’s a process that begins just as harvest ends, with a three-step progression of steeping, germination and kilning. “The barley is at about 13% moisture out of the combine, and steeping brings it to 42, 44%,” Joe says. This brings it to germination, which breaks down the cell walls and makes the starch available. Kilning stops the growing process. The rootlets from germination are removed and stored for sale as a byproduct; “That rootlet is high protein, about 29%,” says John. “The dairy guys love it.”

While the plain malted barley is the farm’s base product, roasting it after malting really opens up the flavor possibilities. “We had the first malt roaster in Canada,” says Matt. “Just by altering the time and temperature in that roaster, we can get all kinds of crazy flavors out of that barley,” he says.

Indeed, customers like the brewers at Red Hart describe the roasted malts along a range from mild, biscuit flavors to bolder roasts like toffee, chocolate and coffee, “which is what I really love,” says Lawrence-Ross. “That burnt toast, coffee kind of flavor you get in a big, heavy stout.”

Jacques Tremblay, the co-founder and co-distiller at Bridgeland Distillery in Calgary, uses the base Red Shed malt for single-malt whiskey and even lists the field where the barley is grown on the label. “We use their raw wheat as well,” says Tremblay, as Bridgeland has just started releasing wheat whiskey. “When we get the grain, every time we open a bag, you can smell the quality,” says Tremblay. “(The Hamills) give us a very consistent product.”

Matt says the family loves working with the craft beer and spirit industry. “They’re always looking for something new and exciting, and we can have a lot of flexibility in product development,” he says. “They also demand a high-quality, very consistent product. So, we had to make sure that our equipment is capable of producing a consistent product.”

“We want to treat the barley as gently as possible when we’re harvesting it, so that we don’t hurt the germination on it at all,” says John, who says his equipment dealer, Trochu Motors in nearby Trochu, Alberta, approached him with the idea of replacing two Massey Ferguson combines with a Fendt IDEAL combine.

“We are running a model IDEAL 9 right now,” says John. “The IDEAL combine rotor system is really designed well to not hurt the barley at all and give us a real clean sample. It’s important for us to have a good sample. If we are peeling and cracking it, it just does not germinate when we put it into the malt equipment.”

But grain quality was only one impressive aspect of the machine. “Going from two combines to one Fendt really made it a lot easier for our manpower at harvest time,” says John. “We’re managing with less people, and it doesn’t take us a lot longer to finish a field.” Plus, he says, “we’re getting the same capacity out of this combine as we were with our two Massey combines.”

Besides saving on manpower, the IDEAL has shown a difference on the books in inputs, as well. “We don’t see that we’re using any more fuel with this combine, and we’re getting just about the same amount of work as two combines,” he says. “So we’ve improved our fuel economy with the Fendt combine.”

The Gold Star Warranty on the combine—which provides 3 years or 1,200 engine hours (whichever occurs first)​ of full service (see more details here)—“has been a huge benefit for us,” says John. “I had to ask a couple of times to explain it to me, because I didn’t think that was possible,” he laughs. “Just the savings on not having to do repairs on the combine at the end of the season is a pretty big part of why we chose the IDEAL combine. I’d have to say that when you have the Gold Star program… and you have the support of your dealership, it makes for a winning combination.”

“As a brewer, quality is super important to me,” says Lawrence-Ross, “and the stuff Red Shed is delivering is just top-notch.” He says he’s even been there to see the barley come out of the field. “We’ve had the opportunity to go out and be in the combine with them when they’re pulling off that crop, that then becomes a product I can sell to my customer,” he says. “And it’s just a really cool experience.”