Local entrepreneur close to launching dream to be a maker of malt

Mar. 17—A Nine Mile Falls man is nearing the end of a five-year journey to get his business idea from a drawing board into the stainless steel vaults that he and his father-in-law had to weld by hand.

Corey Freuen, 42, comes from a family that grows grain in the Wilbur area. He started home brewing a decade ago and hatched an idea to capitalize both on his interest and his family's heritage.

"How cool would it be to brew and use family-grown grain?" Freuen said. "I wanted to start a brewery back then, but I sort of decided I wasn't good enough. And, it was a saturated competitive market."

Instead, Freuen began teaching himself the process of malting, starting in plastic bins in his home before attending a program at Virginia Tech University.

"Everybody thinks of hops, but malt makes up 90 to 99% of a beer's recipe," he said. "In our area, it's great. We have tons of brewers. But, everybody was bringing in their malt from Canada or the Midwest."

Cascadia Malts is born

Wheat and barley seeds have incredibly tough cells that protect them during the winter. Under the correct conditions and enough water, the cell walls break down and the seeds begin to germinate and sprout.

"Malting is compressing that process into one week," Freuen said. "Through that process, it breaks down the cell walls and makes sugars available. That's what the brewers need.

"Then you have to dehydrate it and roast it and you get colors and flavors, and that's where the fun begins."

After developing a business plan, Freuen needed two things: Investors who believed in his idea enough to help him build a working malt room inside a custom 80-by-50-foot steel building and brewers willing to purchase his malt.

"I have an investor group who has been incredibly helpful," he said, while declining to name them.

To begin the process of marketing his malt, Freuen turned to a college buddy from Cle Elum who attended Gonzaga University with him.

"We are going to do 30 barrels of beer together. We will learn as much as we can, collaborate on a label and I'll use that as a tool to sell everything," he said.

The regional market of local brewers gives him a potential client base ranging from Hood River to Missoula. Freuen estimates that area brewers use about 700 million pounds of malt in their processes.

"Just 10 minutes outside of town, we have this amazing agriculture. But at the time, the two industries were not working together. I do have some arrangements with existing brewers, but nothing formal," he said.

Scott Heisel, president of the American Malting Barley Association, said his organization helps small brewers like Freuen by working with research organizations and growers to ensure that malting companies have access to the quality grains they need to remain competitive.

Heisel said most of the big malting operations are spread from his home state of Wisconsin all the way to Vancouver, Washington. In fact, a lot of his organization's work dovetails with work by the Washington Grain Commission.

"Our overall mission is to ensure a supply of good malting barley for our members," he said.

The huge companies, such as Anheuser-Busch and Coors, either buy from large malting operations or do it themselves. However, the craft brewers often rely on the smaller malting operations, Heisel said.

"There is a lot of volatility in the market. It's the same with craft brewing," he said. "For a number of years, it was double-digit growth each year for craft brewers. But, it's sort of leveled off."

Pandemic hits

Freuen said he nearly launched Cascadia Malts a couple years ago.

"We were fully funded two months before the pandemic set in. All my cash-flow models and business models were done by consulting contracts," he said. "And then everything went crazy."

During the pandemic, a contractor walked off the job and parts either became scarce or tripled in price.

He and his father-in-law got sheet metal and welding training and they finished the malting facility on nights and weekends, he said. "I had to decide to quit and lose everything or keep my head down and go forward.

"This business has taken me five-plus years to launch."

Farming heritage

Freuen comes from a family of farmers who continue to raise crops on about 10,000 owned and leased acres west of Wilbur.

"The family on my mom's side settled in central Washington in the 1870s. They've farmed every since," he said.

In the 1980s, the family formed the McKay Seed Co.

"They are a seed supplier to all the farmers in the region," Freuen said. "They have a really wide inventory."

The company then bought the breeding division from Monsanto. Freuen noted it has nothing to do with chemicals or genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, that are designed to be resistant to certain herbicides.

"We even have a heritage seed company where they are brining back land-raised, or heritage, varieties," he said. "A certain segment of the population feels much more confident with those."

With a ready source of grain for his business, and with a malt room that can process up to 10 tons of malt in about a week, Freuen said he hopes he's finally nearing the end of the struggle.

"We will be running tests on our equipment in the next couple of weeks," he said. "We hope to have a marketable product by April."

He credits a very patient family for seeing his vision through.

"It feels like we never caught a break," he said. "As frustrating as it can be at times, it's been fine. I'm a stubbornly optimistic person."

His wife, Melissa, works as a nurse at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane. While it hasn't always been easy on the family finances, Melissa Freuen said, she is excited to see her husband's plan so close to completion.

"It has been a long time in the making, but I've always believed in his dream," she said. "I know it's been hard for him with all these setbacks and seeing the costs ... triple. But I knew he would succeed in it."

As Corey Freuen has had to do things like rely on neighbors to find scrap metal in a nearby field for the steel ladder up the malting platform, the couple also had the full-time job of raising two sons and a daughter on a single salary.

"Now its our dream," Melissa Freuen said. "It's something he hopes to pass onto his children. I think it will be a good thing."