Developing Infrastructure for the Local Malting Barley Industry

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Farmers across the nation continue to answer the call from the craft beverage industry. They’ve planted hops. They’re growing cider apples, grains, potatoes, and botanicals. They’re supplying the honey – and even yeast – needed for farm to glass alcoholic beverage makers.

While farmers are eager to join in the re-emerging of craft beverages, some of the products needed by the industry have not been widely grown for decades, perhaps a century, in many parts of the country. In particular, grains grown for the malting industry have become centralized and standardized, with a loss of small, regional producers and locally-adapted malting grain varieties.

Along with this, the actual malting of these grains has become a lost art, albeit one that is currently being resurrected. In fact, locally grown and malted grains are the last piece of the “truly local” craft beer equation to fall into place. Hops growers began to revitalize the craft beer industry a decade ago, and craft brew pubs and brewers are now offering suds with local and varied hops varieties.

Malting grains are just getting started, as many brew masters realize that locally-crafted beer requires locally-grown and malted grains. As this segment of the industry develops, local supply chains need to be implemented. Unlike commodity grains, malting grains are a specialty crop, requiring some changes in harvesting equipment, different cultivation parameters, and more selective storage conditions than grain farmers may be accustomed to providing.

To be acceptable as a malting grain for brewers, the crop has to meet certain quality parameters, such as germination rate and protein content. Challenging climates and tricky storage needs, a desire for unique varieties, and the lack of regionally-adapted seeds – which is beginning to abate – are only the beginning of the cycle. Once grown, the crop needs to be harvested, cleaned, stored, transported and sold at an equitable price. Local maltsters and farmers are still sorting out how best to share the risk, and create a supply to meet the demand for locally-grown malting grains.

Growing the Supply

Farmers planting malting grains are relying on guidance from researchers and agronomists, many of whom are just learning about the requirements of malting grains – typically barley – for themselves. The risk is great, as secondary markets for malting barley – the livestock industry and distillers – don’t pay as much. But unless the malting barley is in great shape, maltsters can’t utilize it for the beer industry.

“Cornell University has been really valuable, but there doesn’t seem to be a really viable network of researchers and farmers to provide that critical mass of information, especially when compared to other crops,” Jeffrey Trout, of Poorman Farms in Waterloo New York, said. “There’s very little margin for error, therefore making the management factor much more critical compared to other crops. The standards for the end-user are vastly different and more demanding than for most cash crops.”

Dan Gridley, of Farm Boy Farms, (www.farmboybrewery.com) knows a lot about growing malting grains, as well as malting those grains. The farm serves both as a grower of beer ingredients, and a maltster. Farm Boy Farms is currently growing 75 acres of malting barley, and malting 150,000 lbs, some of which is purchased from other local growers.

“North Carolina grown, for North Carolina beer, is our focus, Gridley said. “The ability to source grain grown in North Carolina is our limiting factor.”

The farm began by growing seven acres of 2-row and 6-row malting barley varieties in a pilot study, and reaching out to Appalachian State University and North Carolina State University researches for assistance in selecting those varieties. Farm Boy Farms collected data and came to their own conclusions about which types grow well on their farm.

Cultivation of malting barley crops is more complex than standard commodity grains. The nitrogen need is lower than typical. Micronutrient needs are not well established. The threat of fusarium head blight is a real concern in humid, wet climate conditions. Harvest has to occur as soon as possible, to preserve grain quality. This can be challenging when other crops also need attention, or if a custom harvester is being employed. While standard harvesting equipment can be used, adjustments have to be made for careful handing of the malting grain.

“During harvest, the combine’s ground speed and reel speed must be slowed down as much as possible in order not to damage the kernels,” Bill Verbeten, former Cornell Cooperative Extension Agronomist, writes in an extension bulletin, “Growing Malting Barley in New York.”

Verbeten recommends cleaning the grain, using debearding bars or front cover plates, which will increase the quality of the grain. And drying the grain with air – or cautiously with low levels of heat – and doing so slowly retains quality and germination rate. These after-harvest storage and drying conditions are different than the typical setup for large-scale commodity grains.

“We decided, based on data, to focus on 2-row versus 6-row. Our analysis yielded too many dwarf seeds when cleaning 6-row barley. The 2-row was much more efficient,” Gridley said. With over 30 percent of the 6-row barley going to the feed market, and only 10 percent of the 2-row having to be rejected for malting, they now exclusively grow two different 2-row varieties, Charles and Endeavor.

Harvesting at high moisture, and drying the malting barley down to acceptable moisture content for long-term storage “requires that a farmer has aeration bins available at harvest time or another means to dry the grain, like gravity bins with aeration screws,” Adam Seitz, maltster and owner of Penns Mault, said. “This helps prevent pre-germination of the grain in the field and can also help reduce contamination by microorganisms and potential mycotoxins.”

Gridley harvests the malting barley when it is reaches 12 percent moisture. He then monitors grain bed temperature closely throughout the summer. The temperature in the grain bin should not be above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, “to decrease insects an to lengthen the quality of the grain,” he said. “Constantly checking probes ensures the correct plant management strategies to focus on correct storage.”

In cooler temperatures, Farm Boy Farms has aeration fans to keep the temperature below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. For long-term grain storage, up to one year, the temperatures have to be moderated appropriately to retain grain quality.

“The management required (for storage) is a bit more demanding,” Trout said. “I think the biggest difference centers on longer term storage and providing reliable small batch transportation.”

For grain farmers, storage is usually at a premium, New York farmer Corey Mosher, said. “Whenever you add anything, if its a commodity, storage base is really at a premium.”

Without long-term storage options, where the germination is not compromised, the grain is protected from insect pests, and the overall quality is retained, farmers can grow, harvest, and dry an excellent malting barley crop, but it may never see a malthouse. Finding the balance between on-farm storage and malt house storage is crucial.

Who, where and how to store the malting barley, and maintain its quality long-term, is a risk that is one of the main concerns as the industry grows. Many maltsters seem unprepared to store the malting barley, which has to sit for two to six months, in a dormancy period, for proper germination.

The malting barley quantity needed by most local maltsters requires small batches, not the larger tonnage of grain moved on commodity markets. Small silos storage, and transportation of small batches, is what most maltsters are seeking.

“It’s a big wake-up call,” Mosher said of the risk inherent in storing the malting barley, for both farmers and malsters, as the local supply chain develops.

Farm Boy Farms has the capacity to store 200,000 lbs “to support farmers who are unable to store the grain in their own bins,” Gridley said.

In other circumstances, malt houses are asking farmers to use small tonnage totes, as they don’t have the capacity to accept and store more malt onsite. While this can work, it is an added complication for the farmer.

Contracts?

“Already be talking to a maltster, to make sure there will be a demand and the maltster will really want to buy the product,” Reed Doody, farmer and seed dealer in Tully, New York, recommends. “Storage issues need to be considered.”

With all of these considerations, growing malting barley carries a higher risk -albeit a higher reward – then growing standard commodity grain crops. But fitting this into a grain farmer’s production schedule, as well as doing so on a smaller scale, requires not only infrastructure changes, but a change in perspective.

It’s all about quality, Gridley said. If the malting grain doesn’t meet standards, it goes to the feed market.

“Farming is not easy. Craft farming is even more challenging,” Gridley said. “Growing a high risk product comes with great reward and great regret. When the growing season is ideal, profits are high. When issues arise with the growing season, profits and availability suffer.”

Not being able to deliver on a contract is a concern for farmers. With a crop that is new to them, and for which data in some regions is limited, as extension agents and researchers struggle to learn more about cultivation, variety selection and harvest requirements, farmers may be hesitant to promise a crop – particularly a high-value, specialty crop, and not be able to deliver should the weather or other factors not work in their favor.

“We do not want to make a commitment until we know we can produce a high-quality crop,” Chuck Rhoades, for Willet Hop and Grain, in Willet, New York, said.

Gridley, whose Farm Boy Farms participates in the industry as both a grower of craft beer ingredients and a maltster serving the brewing industry, sees the value of contracts from both the farmer and the maltster perspective. With a planned future capacity to malt 500,000 lbs, of North Carolina grains per year, contracting with other growers will become more important.

“Contracts ensure quality versus quantity. When collaboration occurs from the start, high-quality end products are the expectation. When growers harvest a product that appears to be of quality, but data indicates otherwise, struggle results,” Gridley said. “Constant collaboration between craft farmers, craft maltsters, and craft brewers is the key to success. Maintaining a dialogue from plant to pint ensure quality.”

Trout agrees that contracts benefit the industry as a whole.

“I am and have been under contract with Pioneer Malt in Rochester, New York, for the past few years,” he said. “We have built a really good working relationship together and constantly discuss everything from varieties, land preparation, crop insurance, lobbying efforts. We have also contracted other crops like heirloom corn and buckwheat for malting.”

Gridley contracts only with North Carolina growers, and “the luxury to have multiple regional growing locations will lead to success on any given year. Only having a specific location to source grain will lead to extreme highs and lows.”

Seitz employs that same strategy within Pennsylvania, and has found that even with regional growers under contract, things can go wrong. He recently lost 10 acres of winter barley when the grower needed to sell his farm, and ownership of the barley was a point of contention in the sales contract. Although Seitz had contracted rights, he let the barley go, so as not to interfere with the real estate transaction.

“You have to sort of be willing to understand that stuff happens, both with regards to the human element, and the weather,” Seitz said.

As local supply chains are put into place, growing pains such as these will occur. But that is a part of the difference between large supply chains, controlled by corporations – the large, national malt houses – and the local and regional craft malt culture, where local quality, characteristics and relationships guide the industry to greatness.

“If local does not equal quality, then local does not matter,”Gridley said. “North Carolina grain for North Carolina beer is our focus, and we will grow organically versus having truckloads or railcars providing our business” with non-local grains.

The infrastructure to handle the malting grains, from seed to storage, is in its infancy, with most farmers and maltsters trying to adapt the available resources to meet malting barley’s finicky requirements. Even with these challenges, the demand for local malting grains is strong. The higher price that locally-grown craft malting grains command doesn’t seem to be a deterrent.

“We have not had a brewery disagree with our prices,”Gridley said. “The local quality component adds an even more attractive piece to the beer that is brewed. Properly marketed, the smaller, regional malt houses should be able to have a presence for years to come.”

That is, of course, if local farmers continue to support the industry, growing the needed grains.