Brent Manning of Riverbend Malt House: “Your body is going to fall apart in your 40s”

Your body is going to fall apart in your 40s. Make time for proper exercise and budget for a visit to a physical therapist every other year or so. I put on some weight right after I stopped raking malt and working on the packaging line several years ago. It has been fight to drop […]

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Your body is going to fall apart in your 40s. Make time for proper exercise and budget for a visit to a physical therapist every other year or so. I put on some weight right after I stopped raking malt and working on the packaging line several years ago. It has been fight to drop those pounds ever since!


As part of my series about companies who are helping to battle climate change, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brent Manning.

Riverbend Malt House is on a quest to connect Southeastern family owned farms and fermenters. Co-Founders Brent Manning and Brian Simpson launched Riverbend, the first craft malthouse east of the Mississippi, in 2010. Buoyed by a 70,000 foot production facility and state of the art equipment, Riverbend Malt House helps breweries and distilleries large, small, and in-between stand out with flavor, locality, and community in an increasingly competitive landscape — all the while challenging the status quo of corporate, big-agriculture malt. Learn more at riverbendmalt.com.

Here Brent Manning dives into the last decade of Riverbend Malt House’s business in the Southeast.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My co-founder, Brian Simpson and I, worked as environmental consultants prior to opening Riverbend Malt House. We also helped form a biofuels distribution company, so we had a strong interest in creating resilient, sustainable businesses. We saw the malt house concept as a way of connecting local farmers to the rapidly expanding craft beer and spirits industry.

What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?

Our slogan in “Malt with a Mission” and that mission is to connect farmers with rapidly expanding craft beer and spirits industries. The malting process is a crucial step in the value chain between the field and fermenter!

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

Malt is a global commodity. A tremendous amount of “local” beer is produced with ingredients grown and manufactured thousands of miles away. The closest major malt house to Asheville is in Wisconsin and they purchase their raw materials from Wyoming, which is almost 2,000 miles away. We source 100% of our raw materials from the Southeast. Reducing travel by 1,500 miles or more.

We spend a good bit of time and energy managing our waste streams to minimize environmental impacts. Cleaning of malt generates a tremendous amount of high-protein plant materials (aka rootlets) that are high in protein. This material is captured and distributed to local animal feed operations instead of sending them to the landfill. We have diverted over 100,000 pounds of material in 2021. We have also joined a local recycling cooperative, spearheaded by Sierra Nevada, that allows us to recycle our polywoven bags. This initiative has already diverted 6 tons of plastic from the landfill this year.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Local-sourcing reduces our transportation costs by 50%. Additional savings have been realized during the pandemic as driver shortages have driven prices even higher. Carbon emissions are also reduced at every step of the value chain as a result.

Paying a living wage to our employees and providing health care reduces turnover. Reduced turnover translates into lower employee training costs, fewer production mishaps, and improved safety.

Paying premium prices for grain decouples our operation from the commodity market and forges long-term relationships with local farmers.

In your opinion, what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

I have two young kids, so I think about this a lot. They learn by example and are little sponges at this age. Most of these are not new ideas, but hopefully they are resonating with them.

  1. Grow food. Each year we plan out and plant a garden. We take this opportunity to talk about the seasons and growing conditions in the different parts of the United States. This year, we grew our first successful heirloom Cherokee Purple Tomato and plenty of cherry tomatoes for my son Emerson.
  2. Local food support. We make an effort to utilize our local markets in season and share the harvest with them. Saturday mornings in the summer are filled with fresh blackberries and peaches.
  3. Reuse/Upcycle. My wife manages a far reaching “hand me down” network across the United States. Family and friends exchange clothes as kids grow from toddlers into middle schoolers. Our kids help pack everything and enjoy seeing their clothes pop up on Facebook pictures a few months down the road.
  4. Get outside. Asheville is blessed with a tremendous amount of outdoor options. We hike in the mountains whenever we get the chance. My wife and I both have a strong background in biology, so we take every opportunity to point out healthy ecosystems and rare plants. Asheville’s greenway system gives us an opportunity to discuss the merits of multi-modal transportation planning.
  5. Avoid single use items. This is challenging! Our harping on this subject has led to playrooms full of old milk cartons and empty cereal boxes. We talk about the problem with throwing away something after a single use, especially plastic.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

Ha! This is a good one. The Craft Malting industry is still relatively young, so our list is steadily growing.

  1. Pay yourself a real salary from Day 1. We thought it was a badge of honor to “work for peanuts” when we started. Turns out it creates stress and distractions if you can’t make ends meet on the home front.
  2. Everything costs more than you think. Budgeting construction costs and operational expenses in an industry with no real road map can be a maddening experience. Craft malting equipment is larger than research scale but much smaller than the established production models around the world. Niche products cost more to engineer and build.
  3. Mother nature can be unkind, plan accordingly. We have steadily built a purchasing model that incorporates growers from across our region over the last decade that mitigates our risk at harvest time. Early on we were dependent on 1–2 growers.
  4. Company culture is more than free beer. In the early years, we worked shoulder to shoulder with our team, so it was easy to build camaraderie. As we launched into our major expansion, Brian and I spent more time in meetings with investors and contractors. We lost touch during this time and have been working hard to reestablish the bonds every since.
  5. Your body is going to fall apart in your 40s. Make time for proper exercise and budget for a visit to a physical therapist every other year or so. I put on some weight right after I stopped raking malt and working on the packaging line several years ago. It has been fight to drop those pounds ever since!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Couldn’t agree more! I’d point to more than just a single individual, but to our craft malt community. During our last and most ambitious expansion in 2018, we hit a number of walls with regards to malting technology and crop quality all at the same time. We reached out to our colleagues across the nation for guidance and they came through for us. We connected with growers outside of network to provide some additional raw material that was crucial to help us meet our production commitments. Researchers and consultants helped us figure out how to make our new germination/kiln vessels produce better malt. We might not have made it out of that stage without our friends in the industry!

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?

I think the movement towards creating durable, triple-bottom line businesses offers the most promise for positive impact on a global scale. Companies like Patagonia forged some of the crucial elements of this movement and the current generation of entrepreneurs continues to expand on the definition of sustainability from both a societal and environmental perspective. Riverbend’s business model was inspired the early pioneers in this space and we hope to serve as a model for others in the craft beverage industry.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

Eating is an agricultural act — Wendell Berry

I always add that drinking is also an agricultural act. Wendell Berry hails from Kentucky and I was lucky enough to meet him a few years back. We got a chance to sip on some whiskey and discuss the prospect of expanding grain markets for local farmers. He signed one of our product bags and offered words of encouragement.

His work has informed and deepened my respect for the work of farming and the value of understanding your corner of the world. His ability to recognize and translate complex changes in the local ecosystem within the context of broader global issues is something that will always inspire me.

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

Facebook

Instagram

Twitter

LinkedIn

Thank you for the interview. We wish you only continued success!

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