Local Maker Highlight: Talking Cedar Brewery & Distillery Taps Into Regional Grain Supply
Just outside the bustling downtown of the capital city of Olympia lie lush and fertile farmlands where growers and craftsmen produce some of the region’s amazing agricultural products. Out here, we’re proud of keeping things local.
Ask Bill Lundeen, Production Manager at Talking Cedar Brewery and Distillery how he interprets “shop local” and he’ll tell you the story of how a newly-fledged brewery and distillery in Rochester, Washington went about doing just that when it came to sourcing the specialty grain they rely on to make their craft beer and distilled spirits.
The tribally owned and operated craft brewery/distillery, located in the Chehalis River Valley, is the first of its kind in Washington. The Chehalis Tribe, together with Heritage Distilling Company, joined forces to successfully lobby Congress in 2018 to repeal the Andrew Jackson-era statute that prohibited distilling on native tribal lands. In 2020 they opened their doors to the public, offering locals and visitors to southern Thurston County craft brews, spirits including whiskey, gin, flavored vodkas and rum, and a 37,000 square foot brewpub featuring two distinct bars that overlook their production facilities.
Keeping things local is nothing new to the Chehalis Tribe. They’ve been connecting with the land for centuries, harvesting local water from a private well just up the road in Grand Mound, and their mashing and fermentation process allows local farmers in the valley to reap the benefits of spent grain for their cattle. Diversifying their economic base and supporting local growth is an important goal for Talking Cedar.
But what does “buy local” and “grow local” really mean for a company the size of Talking Cedar which relies a lot on specialty grains? Up to this point, they’d been getting their grain from companies like Great Western Malting in Vancouver, Washington, and Gambrinus Malting Corporation in British Columbia. On the lookout for a more sustainable method of brewing that would have a bigger impact on local growers, Bill accepted an invitation to be a panelist at the Thurston Economic Development Council’s annual Regional Economic Forecast & Innovation Expo in December of 2021 where he met Mike Peroni of the Northwest Agricultural Business Center, and local farmer, Dave Fenn, who represented the SW WA Growers Cooperative, a newly formed co-op of grain farmers from Lewis, Grays Harbor and Thurston counties.
Bill recognized that “keeping it local” would allow them to negotiate for a much better price (and removing the middleman would allow farmers to keep more money in their pocket) as well as shrink their transportation cost by getting grain from farmers who were literally on their doorstep.
Sometimes things just “come together” but sometimes, necessity becomes the mother of invention. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that our already fragile supply chains began completely breaking down. While the cost of providing and acquiring goods went through the roof for pretty much everyone, the food industry seemed particularly hard hit.
Large-scale for-profit aggregators (organizations that manage the aggregation and distribution of food from area producers) have been around forever, but with everyone feeling the squeeze logistics were putting on supply chains, it was making more and more sense for local growers and local consumers to … well, keep things local. What they needed was a regional food hub.
A food hub begins with farmers. Local farmers like Dave Fenn and South Valley Farms, operated by Zach Zucati and Brennan John, for instance, both grew peas and sweet corn for National frozen foods.
For some time, Zach and Dave were able to supply the local National Frozen Foods processing company in Chehalis with their peas and corn. They also occasionally grew wheat and barley for feed and rye as a cover crop, and even got into the vegetable seed business.
When the contract with National Frozen Foods was not renewed, they knew they’d need to pivot. When friend and local dairy farmer Jay Gordon them about a project he’d heard about from a professor at Washington State University to rebuild the grain growing industry in Western Washington, they were interested. WSU had been hosting a yearly Cascadia Grains Conference at the South Puget Sound Community College. The Thurston WSU Extension had also been conducting local grain field trials to figure out both what grains grew best in the region, and which varieties tasted best in local beer and whiskey. Jay also suggested the local farmers attend the Grains Conference where they met with Stephen Bramwell of the WSU Extension, Aslan Meade of the Thurston EDC, and Mike Peroni, of the Northwest Agriculture Business Center (NABC), a nonprofit funded by the state to help farmers find ways to more profitably market products to small producers.
NABC, WSU and the EDC united the three organizations’ expertise and resources together, and under Mike Peroni’s leadership, helped the farmers in the region to form a co-op centered on growing grain—and the SW WA Growers Cooperative was born.
“This is such an incredible project to be a part of,” says Mike Peroni, “and the credit is due to the growers. It was Jay Gordon who began having informal conversations with David Burnett, CEO of Chehalis Tribal Enterprises, letting him know regional producers were working on a grain project in an effort to develop aggregate storage and rail transload capacity for regionally produced small grains.”
It was the Northwest Ag Business Center that got the Southwest Washington Growers Co-op’s first contract with Great Western Malting in Vancouver. In three years, local growers were producing two and a half to three times more product than they had in previous years. The next logical step was to begin looking for opportunities for the Co-op to market their grain locally.
It was clear that local growers like the grain co-op, and local buyers like Talking Cedar, both had a need that the other could fulfill, but what brought them all together to form the solution? Enter the Regional Economic Forecast & Innovation Expo where Bill Lundeen met Mike and growers Zach and Dave for the first time. After their initial discussion at the Expo, Mike and Bill felt the solution lay with providing local grain to a local business.
Every year the Thurston EDC puts on a big event the first Thursday in December, working with their economic development partner organizations from the surrounding counties of Lewis, Grays Harbor, Mason and Pacific. This event showcases what’s going on within the regional economy and forecasts what is coming down the pike in the future. Last December the event organizers decided to put together a panel on the grain supply chain which ended up leading to the successful deal being made between Talking Cedar and the Growers Co-op.
“At the Regional Economic Forecast event, we always try to focus on the actual economic development work going on in our five county region,” recalls Aslan Meade, Director of Strategic Alliances at the Thurston Economic Development Council. “The grain supply chain work and it’s connection to our local craft brewing and distilling industries, was getting to be so exciting, and tells such a compelling story, that it made for an obvious breakout session for the Expo event.”
Talking Cedar recently received 30 tons of unmalted grain from the Southwest Washington Growers Co-op Grain Pool; a soft white spring wheat they use for their distilling process, and eventually a malting barley they’ll use for single malt whiskeys. This is the part of the 130 tons of locally produced grain that Talking Cedar will buy this year. “We’re working on additional transportation and storage issues, but this just lays the groundwork for next year,” shares Bill, “and we’re hoping to contract even more acreage from local growers.”
This couldn’t come at a better time, as small farms in Thurston and the surrounding counties are faced with aging facilities and larger aggregators pulling out of the region. This new grain market is a growing relationship between Talking Cedar and local grain growers that shows a ton of potential for keeping it local.
This article is the result of partnership between Experience Olympia & Beyond and the Thurston Economic Development Council. The next Regional Economic Forecast & Innovation Expo is scheduled for December 1.
Pop In For a Burger and a Beer at Talking Cedar then Explore Our Region's Farmland
Talking Cedar Brewery & Distillery
Talking Cedar is a new 35,000 sq. ft. Distillery-Brewery-Restaurant in Grand Mound, WA. They are owned by the Chehalis Tribe and partner with Heritage Distilling Company (HDC). Their facility includes a 15,000 sq. ft. tribally-owned tasting room and distillery, with 8 fermentation tanks for the production of licensed HDC Spirits and Hand sanitizer. They also have a 6 barrel production floor for Talking Cedar Brewing, creating craft brews on site.
At their restaurant you will be able to enjoy not only craft spirits and beer, but our upscale pub food with locally sourced ingredients. For an extra-special treat, be sure to pop in on the weekends for their special Brunch menu!
Thurston Bountiful Byway
Love a quality road trip? Us too! We also happen to love foods grown and harvested in the region where we eat them!
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Talking Cedar Brewery & Distillery
19770 Sargent Rd SW Rochester, Washington 98579 (360) 858-7867
Talking Cedar Brewery & Distillery19770 Sargent Rd SW
Rochester, Washington 98579
Thurston County Economic Development Council
4220 6th Ave SE Lacey, Washington 98503 (360) 754-6320
Thurston County Economic Development Council4220 6th Ave SE
Lacey, Washington 98503