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Grain to glass

On a Monday afternoon in January, Van Hawxby is feeding the rum.

The yeast needs to eat, so he’s adding just a little bit of diammonium phosphate to the sugar wash. In a few more days, the mixture of dark brown cane sugar, yeast and water will be distilled and barreled. After six months, it will be ready for drinking as rum.

“But we’re here to talk about whiskey,” Hawxby said as he dumped in the remainder of the yeast nutrients and the vat started to bubble.

Almost four years ago, Hawxby and his wife, Lisa, founded DogMaster Distillery in Columbia, Mo., with two products—vodka and unaged whiskey. Since then, they’ve added two more business partners, Dan and Stephanie Batliner, and several more products. Now, they also produce aged whiskey, bourbon and both light and dark rum.

Hawxby sources corn, wheat and oats from the local MFA Agri Services in Columbia to make his whiskeys and bourbons. He said he does so for a couple of reasons.

“It’s convenient for me,” Hawxby said. “I can just call the guys at MFA and say, ‘Hey, I need a load of grain.’ I know that within five days the order will be ready for pickup without any additional shipping costs. Plus, we want to support Missouri farmers and agriculture. Eventually, we’d like to get to the point where we’re contracting with farmers to grow particular grains for us. We’re not there yet, but when we get our grains from MFA, we know that it’s typically from a farm within a 50-mile radius.”

A self-described Oklahoma farm boy, Hawxby grew up on a small hobby operation during his father’s tenure as agriculture professor at Oklahoma State University.

“It was a farm to feed four boys,” Hawxby said. “Both my parents were farm kids from Nebraska, so agriculture runs pretty deep in our family. We didn’t have row crops or cattle, but we had our projects for 4-H and FFA. We had show cattle, and I raised turkeys.”

Later, Hawxby’s father took a position for the University of Missouri Extension in St. Joseph, Mo. That’s where Hawxby met his wife, who is from Agency, Mo.

“My father was always preaching added value, added value,” Hawxby said. “How can farmers add value to their products? Well, they can do that by selling their grains at a premium to a local distillery.”

Hawxby said the idea for his business was formulated seven years ago when he was introduced to the craft-distilling industry.

“I had always wanted to be self-employed,” Hawxby said. “I wanted to build a business of my own. I didn’t really know what that was or what it would look like, but I knew I wanted it to be a business where I was creating something that was consumable—something that people use over and over again. I thought, ‘If I could grow a loyal, local clientele and expand organically, how cool would that be?’”

Hawxby isn’t the only one to have that thought. Craft distilleries have been popping up across the country, in towns both large and small. There are more than 20 in Missouri alone in rural areas such as New Haven, Purdy, Walnut Shade and Higbee, just to name a few. According to a 2015 white paper published by American Distilling Institute Research Economist Michael Kinstlick, the number of entrants to the market has doubled every three years and is estimated to reach 2,000 by 2020.

“When I first opened up, there were about 500 small working distilleries in the United States,” Hawxby said. “Now there are probably 1,300.”

Before he started working on his products, Hawxby had to devise a business plan and get licenses and permits in place. It’s illegal to distill liquor without the proper paperwork. It then took a couple of months of experimentation to get his recipes right. He called on distillers near and far for instruction.

“People in this industry are very friendly,” Hawxby said. “They’ve realized that the more people are out there doing this, the more we grow our collective market share. We help each other. I put together a couple of week-long internships at distilleries across the country. I just asked them if I could come in, be a free laborer and ask a bunch of stupid questions. People were really open to it.”

In July 2014, DogMaster Distillery opened its doors to the public. The name comes from an inside joke between Hawxby and some college friends. The gist of it, he explained, is that the “DogMaster” sets off on his own path.

“We would harass the person that didn’t want to hang out with the guys because they had to study or wanted to go on a date,” Hawxby said. “It’s the DogMaster who does their own thing, marches to the beat of their own drum.”

Hawxby’s whiskey grain bill, which is the industry term for the mix of ingredients used to make the wort, is made up of 40 percent corn, 15 percent oats, 20 percent wheat and 25 percent malted barley. The wort is the liquid extracted from the cooking process, also called mashing.

“For whiskey, we take 750 pounds of that grain blend and 250 gallons of water,” Hawxby said. “Then basically, we cook the grain into an oatmeal-like consistency. That converts the starches in the grains into fermentable sugars. Once we have this fermentable, sweet, corn sugar liquid, we strain that off the grain and add our yeast.”

The yeast eats the sugar and converts it into ethyl alcohol. Once the yeast is added, fermentation typically takes around five days, Hawxby said. At this point, the alcohol content of the wort is that of a beer or wine. From that point, he pumps the liquid into a 200-gallon still. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, he explained, so when the pot of the still is heated, the alcohol vapor rises through the columns at different temperatures. It then passes through a coil where it condenses back into liquid form.

“The first part of the still run is what we call the heads,” Hawxby said. “It’s lower-grade alcohols—methyl alcohol and ethyl acetate. We reserve that and use it for disinfecting the tanks. Then we have the hearts, which is the good stuff. That’s the ethyl alcohol and the good whiskey we keep. The last part of run is called the tails. The tails have some fusel oils, which are the things that will give whiskey some off-putting odors and flavors, but there is still some good alcohol in there, so we reserve those, too. We’ll put those in with the next batch to distill down again.”

The process for bourbon is similar to whiskey, but the grain bill is different. Bourbon must also meet a list of additional criteria. Legally, bourbon:

  • Must be produced in the United States
  • Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51 percent corn
  • Distilled to no more than 160 proof
  • Aged in new, charred oak barrels
  • Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof
  • Bottled at 80 proof or more, like other whiskeys

So, all bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon, Hawxby explained. Bourbons are a uniquely American spirit.

Fermentation takes anywhere from three to five days. Hawxby calls the production a fusion of nature, science, artistry and craftsmanship.

After the process is complete, the whiskey is bound for the bottle or the barrel, depending on its destiny. Hawxby sources his barrels from Robert Berendzen of Barrel 53 Cooperage in Higbee, Mo. The barrel is where the whiskey or bourbon gets a lot of its flavor and color.

“Our distillery is very much a Missouri operation,” Hawxby said. “We get our grains locally and our barrels locally. It’s part of our brand and part of our story.”

As the craft distillation industry has entered a renaissance, Berendzen is a bit of a renaissance man himself. In addition to the cooperage, he also owns and operates a distillery, stave mill and farm where he grows grains and raises horses, cattle, goats, chickens, elk and a single turkey. He’s put his own twist on the “grain to glass” notion.

“We call it forest to glass,” Berendzen said. “Missouri white oak is sought after all over the world for the flavors, the sugars and the caramels it gives off, and we have a good supply of it here.”

In 2012, Berendzen started Midwest Stave Exchange, also based out of Higbee and right across the road from Barrel 53 Cooperage. He works with multiple logging companies to sustainably source the white oaks.

“We buy our logs from the loggers, but there are programs where if you remove a tree, you plant three more seedlings,” he said. “Most of these logs come from somewhere in a 60-mile radius around Higbee.”

Once he began making staves, Berendzen said the cooperage and distilling became the next logical step. He is one of three master barrel craftsmen in the area. In 2013, Berendzen established Barrel 53 Cooperage and two years later, he started Woodsmen Distilling. Now, he employs more than 30 workers in the small town of fewer than 600 people and sends both staves and barrels all across the country and the world.

“I’ve been farming and around farming all my life,” Berendzen said. “But my father-in-law also owned a saw mill for 30 years. The stave mill was our first thought, then when this grew so much that we needed another mill, that was our second thought. The idea for the cooperage and distillery came at the same time shortly thereafter.”

At the stave mill, logs are cut to size, and then a process known as quarter-sawing is used to ensure the barrels will be liquid tight. Each log is hand-sawed at an angle into four quarters and rotated to ensure the wood grain lays flat. This process is what sets a stave mill apart from a saw mill, Berendzen explained.

“It’s a very important part of our process,” he said. “If we didn’t quarter-saw these logs, all the liquid would leak out of the barrel.”

Completed staves are graded for quality and put into two different piles. If there was an imperfection in part of the tree, those staves are set aside and used for kindling during the charring process. Barrel-worthy staves are stacked on a pallet for curing.

“Once our staves have been made, we allow them to mature for three to six months,” Berendzen said. “When the wood is ready, the staves are then kiln-dried to 15 percent moisture and sent down the road to our cooperage.”

At the cooperage, the staves go through a cup planer to round the surface slightly prior to assembly. Then they are hooped together to form a loose barrel shape and run through a steam tunnel for about 30 minutes. Steaming is necessary to pull the top staves of the barrel together, Berendzen said. Without it, the staves would break under the pressure. Finally, they go into another tunnel for drying, and then the char is added.

Charring the barrel changes the compounds of the wood. The staves release cellulose, which allows the wood to form a bond. The carbon layer acts as a filtration system for the alcohol as it seeps into the wood of the barrel. But maybe most importantly, charring releases the hemicellulose found in the oak, which breaks down the sugars in the wood.

Berendzen’s rackhouse sits a little over half full with roughly 150 barrels of assorted bourbons, whiskeys and ryes at varying stages of aging. The structure isn’t heated or cooled and has no method for temperature control.

“Most people don’t realize, but 60 percent of your flavor comes from the wood,” Berendzen said. “You want that expansion and contraction of the alcohol seeping in and out of the stave. It gets its color, its caramel, its sugars—all of that—from the wood.”

Neither Berendzen nor Hawxby is done expanding his business. Berendzen’s daughter is in the process of designing an event venue that will also make room for an additional still, and Hawxby is making the DogMaster label known in the wholesale market. His whiskeys and spirits can be found in retail stores across Missouri.

Meanwhile, 50 miles from Higbee and 20 miles from Columbia, Bruce Shryock is growing the wheat that could one day make its way into DogMaster’s bottles. Shryock plants anywhere from 500-600 acres of wheat every year on his Auxvasse, Mo., farm. Much of his wheat is grown for seed, he said, but he has also marketed it to the local flour mill and other outlets such as MFA’s Columbia elevator.

“Sometimes farmers don’t think about where our crop will end up, but I think it’s important people know what we do, what we grow and what it’s used for,” Shryock said. “We’ve tried to impart that on our kids and grandkids.”

The wheat is short this time of year, and the field is muddy, but that doesn’t stop Shryock’s 3-year-old grandson, Ledd Robert Foster, from trudging through it. His grandfather turns to the youngster and asks, “Ledd, what does wheat make?” Ledd innocently responds, “Cereal.”

Cereal and whiskey, among other things. That’s what wheat makes.

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