Recently, I had the utmost pleasure of sitting down with Kether Scharff-Gray, COO of Mainstem Malt, the nation’s first certified B Corps Maltster, who strives to help brewers, distillers and bakers bring the farm to their fans through crafted, premium malt!
Kether, who has been with the Walla Walla, Washington based company for two years, shared incredible insight to an industry that I had never really paid attention to: the effort from seed to glass. With having worked in breweries for about five years, I, shameful to admit, had never really thought the supply chain that brought the grain to the brewery!
Kether broke it down for me like this: You go to a brewery, you know this beer has malt and hops in it, two key ingredients. Now, start thinking backwards: Who trucked the grain to the brewery? Who malted the grain and bagged it? Who trucked it to that maltster? Who cleaned the grain that went to that maltster? Who grew that grain, who bred that grain for those certain characteristics in that grain? Where did that seed come from originally? – It’s everything behind that glass and who manages that flow, that’s why Supply Chain management is absolutely vital to the beer making process!
M: How did you get into this industry?
K: Good question, I’m an idealist. What happened with all young people, we began to question, what does it mean to be a local food? I maintained my idealism through that. Back in 2005, I had been working in restaurants forever and would always question, Where does this come from? What is the origin? Why is this part of the plating? I started to be able to track that information backward. I worked for every kind of food company (restaurants, food banks, free meal program, non-profit, seed to table school non-profit) and I wanted to understand as much of the full scope that food meant. Breaking point for me, idealists weren’t considering a couple key industries, grain and fisheries. I thought, ‘Oh dang! I dont know anything about grains; what are grains?‘ Then, a friend, who is a bakery owner, asked if she heard of Mainstem Malt. -There was a job posting for an Agriculture and Supply Chain specialist. Kether THIS IS MY DREAM JOB! Soon after, the position was hers!
M: What does it mean to be a female working in this role?
K: There are relatively few women in this industry. It’s always interesting being a woman working with predominantly men… the day to day interactions, they are fine. People are cool, unless you piss them off for unrelated reasons. I think I’m also working really hard to manage my own social conditioning. I work hard not saying sorry, to be direct and assertive. Some insidious conditioning, hard to negotiate. I feel like as a woman I am less likely to question what is proposed. It doesn’t occur to me that i can ask for better terms. I don’t feel the same sense of entitlement (as men). I don’t have community, because it’s way less often women fill this role. But, I feel really grateful for a boss that is just like, ‘You are totally capable of this and I will help you with any questions you have.’ It’s nice to ask questions and get lengthy answers. At this point, it doesn’t feel like mansplaining, it just feels like explaining. Ask me this question in a couple years, once I have my footing and more knowledge.
M: Can you share some of Mainstem Malt’s accomplishments?
K: When I think of accomplishments for us and for me, as an extrovert and community centered person, the breadth of our community is the way we build relationships with maltsters, farmers, and truckers. It’s about developing and maintaining those connections, and that yields some of our greatest accomplishments. Throughout challenging times, we’ve been able to maintain our relationships with farmers and maltsters because we believe in transparency and communication. Keeps our growers and partners in the loop. Also, the number of acres that are Certified Salmon Safe, an effort in conservation, I want to be able to reflect in 5 years the impact to individuals, communities and ecosystems. We purchase from farmers, contracting guaranteed prices, which helps stabilize the commodity market, which is influenced by foreign markets. We do this to ensure stability in pricing, key feature to the relationship with growers.
M: What joy does this job give you?
K: I love order! Well, I’m not physically an orderly person but I love systems and tracking information. If a system is out of whack, I love to be able to create a standard procedure and write protocol, develop systems of tracking, spreadsheets, relational databases. I’m also really into people. I love the relationships and getting to call a grower or visit a malting partner, and connecting with them. Getting to have human relations with people with who are not exactly as me or have the same views as me – so much value in connecting to people who are not like you. Easier to not, because it takes more energy and tact on both sides.
M: Advice for anyone trying to break into this line of work?
K: We will be hiring soon! I want to work with a badass crew. Valuable resource: public libraries have access to linked in learning, self paced learning platform, where you can watch videos and learn how to do anything from spreadsheets to video, etc. Also, take stock of the things that make you slightly crazy and uncover what the skill set is behind that. Seek a mentor. Utilize your community. Ask questions, pursue your curiosity! Take advantage of free resources! PS: If you see a job posting, and you can accomplish 70% of the tasks required, you should still apply for it!
M: Lastly, what is it about sustainability that is so important to you?
K: Sustainability… an important buzzword that needs to mean something. Not only is something produced with environmental standards in mind, but also, the community. You think about food growing, but are those humans doing the work being cared for? Are they paid a fair wage? Do they have rights, vacation? What sustainability means to me, is that we can ask questions and feel confident that those standards are being met. As for the business, is it viable into the future? Does whatever they’re doing work? Is it providing value? Sustainability is so multifaceted, we only think of environmental stability. I hope people are considering more than the food and the product. It’s the layers behind it. If not, how do we pursue it? It takes all of us, that’s the trick.