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August 11, 2020

Proposal to reopen malthouse explained

by Nancy Busiahn

A proposal to put the idle Minnesota Malting malthouse in Cannon Falls back to work received a preliminary hearing by city staff on Tuesday, Sept. 12.

Craig Belser, the founder of Bard's Tale Beer; Bill Sill, vice president of product and industrial development for Progressive Rail; and Rick Young, CEO of True Source Foods, presented an ambitious plan that starts with reopening the malthouse, and eventually includes the construction of a new brewery and other gluten-free food processing facilities in Cannon Falls. If he's unable to get the use of the malthouse, Belser said he would take his entire proposal elsewhere.

Belser explained that gluten-free food is very important to individuals with celiac disease, gluten intolerance or allergy. A celiac himself, Belser said he can't eat about 80% of foods on grocery store shelves. He also has two children who suffer from the disorder, which affects one in every 133 Americans. Statistically, that means that 30 residents of Cannon Falls could have celiac's disease. Symptoms of the disease range from diarrhea, weight loss, and malnutrition, to latent symptoms such as nutrient deficiencies. The only treatment is to avoid all foods containing gluten, which typically is made from wheat, rye, and barley.

The gluten-free malt for Bard's Tale Beer is currently produced in Canada. The beer is brewed under contract at two breweries, one on each coast of the US. The breweries are having a difficult time keeping up with the demand, Belser said, and the cost to ship the malt to the breweries is astronomical. Currently sold in 16 states, the beer is also popular with "regular" beer drinkers, Belser noted.

Under pressure from customers to increase production quickly, Belser would like to reopen the MMC malt house for the production of malt from sorghum. He'd use only part of the structure initially.

The two things that make the MMC property ideal, Belser explained, are that the facility is suited to making malt from sorghum, and that it is in really good shape and ready to go. The size of the malthouse would also allow Belser to produce malt for other customers.

The proximity of the railroad, which would eliminate a large portion of his shipping costs, is another plus for Belser. There would be no more rail traffic to the malthouse than when MMC operated the facility, he said.

Between 25 and 42 jobs would be created in the malthouse alone, Belser said, and the brewery another 50-100 jobs. The jobs would pay well, and be a mixture of white and blue collar positions.

Belser would initially ship his malt to the two contract breweries but, as demand increases, he would build his own brewery, probably in the Cannon Falls industrial park. The brewery would also require a rail connection and eventually, the company would need a new malthouse, and gluten-free food processing facilities.

Gluten-free products are currently the hottest food trend in the country, Belser said, and the beer is only the first of 22 gluten-free items the trio hopes to produce and market. Young would be responsible for the production of food items.

Belser isn't interested in acquiring the MMC wastewater treatment pond, and wants to utilize city sewer services instead.

Belser also isn't asking for TIF or other financial help from the city. "I just want them to get out of my way, and let me open that place up. We can't get a better deal - me or the city!"

City administrator Kathleen Miller confirmed that the men made a presentation to city staff, but said it is too early to make any other comments about the project. The men were advised to submit a formal proposal on the project.

It will be necessary for the city council to change the residential/business zoning of the property back to industrial for the project to move forward.

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