A partnership between conservationists and farmers aims to save the Verde River and yield some tasty brews.
In 2018, following the driest winter on record for Arizona’s mountain watersheds, Verde Valley residents were bracing for a brutal summer. They expected sections of the Verde River to shrivel into septic, ankle-deep streams – but that’s not what happened. “We got in the river in June, and we were paddling our boats through a stretch where normally you’d just be bouncing off rocks,” says river conservationist Chip Norton.
Back in Phoenix, beer lovers were sipping Wren House Brewing Co.’s Dankworth with Citra double IPA and Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co.’s Pine Mountain Sour Pale Ale, both crafted with local malted barley.
Those two scenarios may seem completely unconnected. But they were both made possible through Norton’s benefit corporation, Sinagua Malt. Thanks to its water-saving barley crop, this initiative kept 47 million gallons of water in the Verde River last June – water that otherwise would have irrigated thirsty, summer-growing crops. The Camp Verde company – a partnership between The Nature Conservancy, Norton and Verde Valley farmers – marks the launch of Arizona’s first malted barley industry. It’s also the first time an environmental organization has created an economic market for the purpose of river conservation. Now, this sustainable grain has become all the rage among Valley brewers and homebrewers.
“It feels good to be able to give back a little bit and keep some water in the rivers for other people or future generations,” says Chase Saraiva, head brewer at Arizona Wilderness, which uses Sinagua Malt as the base malt for all its beers. “The feedback we’ve gotten from everyone has been overwhelmingly positive. People honestly sometimes seem like they’re in awe of the project.”
The idea started fermenting several years ago through conversations between Norton and Kim Schonek, the Verde River projects manager for The Nature Conservancy. Schonek is tasked with improving the health of this federally designated Wild and Scenic River, which flows into the Salt River near Fountain Hills and provides water to 10 metro Phoenix cities. The river is also the lifeblood for Verde Valley farmers, who siphon water to irrigate approximately 6,000 acres.
Schonek had already saved millions of gallons a day in the Verde by installing automated, solar-powered gates that deliver the exact amount of water farmers require. Next, she decided to tap the beer industry.
Brewing is a water-intensive business, and eco-conscious brewers are always trying to shrink their H2O footprint. Brewers are also often outdoorsy types, so an environmental project is a natural fit. “People who like rivers seem to like beer,” Schonek says. “There’s a lot of talk around breweries and sustainability and river conservation.”
There’s also a lot of talk around persuading farmers to switch from thirsty crops like alfalfa, cotton and corn to barley. This grain is ideal in the Southwest because it’s planted in winter, irrigated in spring when rivers swell, then harvested in June, so it doesn’t stress the river in summer. The problem? Farmers who grow barley for its common use, low-priced cattle feed, are almost guaranteed to go in the red.
But Schonek and Norton figured that if farmers grew beer barley and malted it, the value-added crop could yield a profit. This would also be a boon to Arizona brewers and beer lovers who want a truly local beverage. The barley that makes most craft beer hails from Canada or Europe and is malted in mega-facilities outside the state. “Your local beer doesn’t have any local malt,” Schonek says. “The beer is produced locally, but the biggest ingredient in it comes from far away and has almost no [Arizona] connection.”
Schonek and Norton worked with Verde Valley farmers Kevin and Zach Hauser to convert some of their 600 acres to barley. This required an enormous leap of faith. The father-son team sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into new equipment. The Nature Conservancy brought in experts to teach them how to grow Harrington two-row barley and agreed to shoulder any financial losses during the experimental years. No one knew if they could produce a palatable product that brewers would buy in bulk.
The first year, the Conservancy had to ship the barley to a malting facility in Texas. But the handful of Arizona brewers who brewed with the malt deemed it delicious. So the Hausers ramped up acreage, and in April 2018, Sinagua Malt opened its malting facility in Camp Verde.
Malt of the Earth
“It’s a tale of perseverance,” Norton says. “We started out under-capitalized. We persevered through that. We really didn’t have experience in malting. We persevered through that.” The project has also been successful for the Hausers. “Their return on investment is better than they thought. They’re excited about it,” Norton adds. Now, the problem is that “demand for the malt greatly exceeds our capacity.”
Sinagua Malt’s main clients are Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. in Gilbert and Phoenix, Wren House Brewing Co. in Phoenix, Sedona Beer Co., and Dubina Brewing Co. in Glendale. In addition, they sell to O.H.S.O. Brewing (with four Valley locations), Pedal Haus Brewery in Tempe, and a handful of others around the state.
This year, Sinagua Malt became available for homebrewers at Brewers Connection, a brewing supply shop in Tempe. “Everyone likes local, so if there’s something local, we’re going to go after it. And anything we can do to help the environment is just the cherry on top,” says owner Drew Tapolcai. “Now [homebrewers] can make an all-Arizona beer, and that’s never been done before. Everyone likes it, so we’re just hoping we can get our hands on more.”
This year the Hausers planted 118 acres of barley. Next year they hope to plant 250 to 300. The long-term goal is their entire 600-acre property. Sinagua Malt makes about 3 tons of malt a week and is gearing up to double that in 2020.
It means long hours for Norton, who’s turning 70 this year, but the benefits to the Verde and Arizonans make it worthwhile, he says. “I recognize that things that matter are hard. And to get people to change, that’s really hard. So I guess the cool thing is that it was hard, and it worked.”