Determined to bring their love of specialty beers within the reach of everyone, the owners of Sprowt Labs spent three years developing a mini-malting machine.
The Acro Personalized Malthouse allows beer lovers to germinate small batches of grain without the expense of industrial operations. The first set of machines slid off the assembly line and shipped to customers in early August.
The equipment — about 65 pounds and the size of a dorm fridge — is designed to germinate wheat or barley seeds in tiny batches ranging from 10 to 35 pounds.
“That is very small, especially for the malting industry which normally operates on a very large scale,” said software engineer and Sprowt Labs co-owner Brian Hedberg. “There are not many affordable options for making your own malts at a scale that is smaller than 5,000 pounds.”
So home brewers, small craft breweries, beer researchers and farmers — called nano-brewers in the industry — are the company’s primary targets.
The Acro malting/germination box must be used with a small fermentation hopper that Sprowt Labs also sells.
If it succeeds, the Acro would give homeowners and tiny craft brewhouses the chance to create their own malt blends just like malt-making behemoths such as Cargill Inc., Viking Malt, Bairds Malt Ltd. and Malteurop Groupe (which makes malts for Heineken).
“Long term we see ourselves as a platform for accelerating the craft-beer supply chain,” Hedberg said. Custom malting on this small a scale is much bigger in Europe.
To be sure, Sprowt Labs’ initial offerings won’t upset the big players anytime soon. While MarketsandMarkets estimates the global specialty-malt market is poised to reach $3 billion in four years, Sprowt Labs only expects to sell about 50 units its first year, Hedberg said.
“For us that would go a long way,” he said. Each unit will sell for about $6,000.
It’s a humble goal for a company with humble beginnings. It began in 2015 in a Minneapolis basement.
Co-owner Christopher Abbott’s past experience in the grain industry nudged him to venture out on his own. Abbott worked in Maine at a startup craft malthouse and rice research farm before moving to Minnesota in 2015 to work at LiteSentry Corp. He left that job to focus on Sprowt Labs full time in 2016 and pulled in some help.
Hedberg joined Sprowt Labs part time in 2016 and full time in 2017 after leaving his job as a software engineer with the government digital services agency 18F. Hedberg is helping build Sprowt Labs’ website so customers can order the Acro and accompanying pipes, adapters and clamps.
To get their business formula just right, Abbott and Hedberg worked with the University of Minnesota’s barley program to learn more about seed germination and beer brewing.
In December 2017, they won some much-needed manufacturing help, which is a good thing considering the Acro malter requires 800 parts, including a complicated humidification chamber where seeds can germinate before being dried out and prepped for later brewing.
Maple Plain-based Protolabs awarded Sprowt Labs $29,000 worth of manufacturing services that included injection molding some parts and 3-D printing others until Hedberg and Abbott had the desired humidification chamber for the Acro.
Separately, Sprowt Labs hired and bought parts from other firms such as Discount Steel in Minneapolis, Custom Coil in Wisconsin and DigiKey electronics in Thief River Falls, Minn. In all, the company spent tens of thousands of dollars creating 11 machine prototypes before perfecting a final version.
Now things are moving fast, they said.
Last summer, attendees at the Home Brew Convention liked Sprowt Labs’ mini-malting idea so much that they preordered 20 Acro machines. Those are the orders that shipped last week.
In July, Sprowt Labs moved from its Minneapolis basement into a 1,000-square-foot factory in Burnsville. In August, Sprowt Labs launched its new website.
In November, the company will attend Vermont’s NanoCon, which is geared toward little breweries producing 1,000 to 5,000 barrels of beer a year. Other trade shows are in the forecast, Abbott said.
The Acro also will be marketed to farmers who have asked Abbott and Hedberg for an economical way to develop and test different grain malts.
“Farmers are always looking for new ways to take their raw-commodity products and turn them into value-added products,” Hedberg said.
Abbott agreed. “We have the exciting opportunity to leverage craft beer’s need for market differentiation and unique flavors into new specialty markets for local farmers,” he said.