Boone Co. family making barley a Hoosier crop at state's largest malt company

LEBANON, Ind. -- When you think of Indiana crops, you often think of corn and soybeans – rarely do you think of barely. But at the Sugar Creek Malt Company in Lebanon, barley is the top crop.

Sugar Creek Malt Company is the largest commercial malt company in Indiana. Caleb Michalke and his family started in three years ago.

“The goal is to make a product as local as possible and as high quality as possible for the brewers that are making Indiana beer,” Michalke said.

That’s tougher than it sounds. Besides water, which is the main ingredient, you need grain – especially barley. But most of the barley in the United States is grown out west in drier climates.

“Indiana is not the best climate for barley to be raised in,” Michalke said. “I mean, it can be raised and we have some very successful years. But there are other years where we have some really terrible years.”

Barely doesn’t like water, heat or humidity – three things you often find in abundance during Indiana summers. To get around this, Michalke will work with other local farmers and plant in the fall and harvest in the spring. They will plant barley in different fields around the state to prevent storm damage, but also to cover themselves if one area gets too much rain or not enough.

Once ready for harvest, to get the grain from the fields and eventually into your favorite local pint or cocktail is a multi-step task.

First the barley goes into a steep tank filled with water, where it sits for two days. Then it goes onto something called a germination floor, where it’s allowed to grow roots.

The barley is then cooked for 20-24 hours in a kiln to dry, clean and cure it. Cooking the barley for different lengths of time gives it a different flavor and in turns makes pilsners, pale ales and porters. From the kiln it is sent to the seed cleaner, and then shipped to breweries.

In addition to barley, the Sugar Creek Malt Company also makes malts with corn, oak and buckwheat. So next time you raise a glass of your favorite local pint or cocktail, there is a good chance that your drink started with true Hoosier roots.

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