Farm to Table Beer: Vital Connections from Grain to Brew

Brewers need malted grain. Until recently, the cultivation of malting grain for the brewing industry has been concentrated in just a few states, primarily Idaho, North Dakota, Montana, Colorado and Wyoming. As cultivation has consolidated into a geographic area, one where the grains could be grown on a large scale, malting barley – along with other malting grains – was whittled down from myriads of locally-adapted and diverse varieties to a few strains that meet the needs of the large brewers. But change is coming.

“Right now the list of recommended malting barley published by the American Malting Barley Association (www.ambainc.org) is maybe a bit limited. However, it is bigger than it was a few years ago, as more craft brewers and maltsters have joined AMBA” Professor Paul Schwarz, Department of Plant Sciences, North Dakota State University, said. “Breeders have largely been guided by the quality specifications of the major brewers, until recently.”

Craft brewers have different requirements for their malted grains than the large commercial brewing companies. They also use significantly more malting grain in their beverage production than the industry average, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. With craft brewers representing less than eight percent of the brewing industry, they are now utilizing over 25 percent of the malt and malt product ingredients. This is in contrast to the mere 2.4 percent they required in 1993. http://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2015-may/expanding-craft-beer-production-boosts-industrial-use-of-barley.aspx#.VVJRsvCtaEn

With craft brewers commanding more of the market share, the requirements for malting grains are changing. Small malt houses are slowly re-emerging, growing along with the farm-to-table movement, and locally-grown malting grains are in high demand.

Maltsters Demand Local

“I realized I couldn’t get my malt locally,” Michael Johnson, of Bandwagon Brew Pub, in Ithaca, New York said.

Business plans for the brew pub called for expansion, with a production facility and tasting room opening this year, and plans to distribute their craft beers locally. Johnson added malting to that list, and opened East Coast Malts. The goal is not only to create local malt for their own use, but to distribute locally-grown and locally-malted grains to the region’s craft brewers and distillers.

The missing piece in the local brew equation isn’t just a lack of maltsters. It also involves the availability of local farmersd, willing and able to grow the needed grains. Johnson and other craft maltsters don’t want any given grain, they want unique varieties, suited to local growing conditions, that can impart different tastes and characteristics into a brew. For many maltsters, locally-grown grains are the pivotal element in their business.

“We don’t pull in from elsewhere. We only are doing the local stuff,” Johnson said of the grains they are malting.

East Coast Malts is currently sourcing malting barley from a handful on New York state farmers. Farmers have been eager to grow the grains, and have approached East Coast Malts, asking what grains they’d like to have grown. There has been substantial effort to determine what types and varieties of barley grows best in the region, with researchers from Cornell University, as well as other institutions, leading the way.

The supply of malting grains has outpaced the demand, Bill Verbeten, Regional Extension Agronomist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, said. Even with some disease and low germination issues, or protein levels too high for brewing – all concerns which have occurred in the state – farmers have more malting grain than needed to meet the existing level of demand.

“Currently, there are at least 15 different varieties of malting barley – including winter and spring, which are either two-row or six-row varieties – being grown in New York,” Verbeten said. “We can’t just provide a small number of malting barley varieties with very similar quality parameters in large quantities in New York, Verbeten said. “The malting barley supply is inherently quite variable and likely will be for some time. This may present challenges and opportunities for brewers who are used to buying malting barley in large quantities, with less variability in quality.”

Different varieties of barley do have taste differences, Johnson said. Being a part of a small-scale brew pub, as well as a maltster, he has had the opportunity to experiment, and “can definitely taste the difference.”

These differences, although slight, exist even among the same varieties of barley, depending on the farm’s soil and production practies. While this may decrease as more farmers adapt standard cultivation practices, Johnson doesn’t want local cultivation limited to a few varieties, but hopes a local food system can accommodate a variety of malting grains, grown locally, keeping diversity a priority.

“I hope there still remains a bunch of different varieties,” he said. “We can create different things. Right now we’re just dealing with malting barley, with the six-row background. We’re trying to perfect our base malt.”

Brandon Ade, of Blacklands Malt, in Leander, Texas, is another maltster exclusively focused on local malting grains. He currently utilizes 90 tons of raw malting grains each year, to produce 70 tons of finished malt. Ade directly contracts with producers, seeking those who will grow two-row barley varieties adapted to the Texas climate. Securing producers who are willing to give malting barley a try as a rotational crop “is the most critical step,” for the region’s maltsters, he said.

“It has been my mission, since 2012, to introduce barley back into the agricultural system in Texas. My entire dream of starting a malt house in Texas was to eventually brew beer and spirits made with locally-raised crops from the Central Texas Blackland Prairies,” Ade said. D“We malt two-row barley and hard red winter wheat grown here in Texas. We are always experimenting with new varieties as both the barley varieties and Mother Nature change over time.”

Schwarz agrees that craft maltsters and brewers will lead the way in increasing malting grain variety. Locally-adapted variety trials are being conducted, and lesser known varieties will be given the chance to find their niche as locally-grown malting grains are developed.

“As craft brewing is consuming a larger share of the malt, barley breeders will definitely be paying attention to craft needs. Breeders may already have barley lines that are well-suited to craft, but were not accepted under the guidelines of the larger brewers,” Schwarz added. “Both the Brewers Association and the AMBA have recently released guidelines for quality specifications on varieties for the craft industry.”

New York, once a thriving production center for malting grains, and once the leading producer of barley prior to 1900, is seeing a resurgence of malting grains being sown. In fact, supply is outpacing demand in the region.

“Farmers are having a harder time marketing the grain than growing it,” Verbeten said. “The supply chain from farm to glass is very new, and the next few months will be critical in establishing its long term viability.”

Infrastructure

Base malts – the ones which brewers need to convert starch in the mash – are kilned a low temperatures, preserving enzymes. Specialty malts start from a base malt, but are further modified by kilning at higher temperatures, adding distinctive and unique colors and flavors, Ade said.

“You can not make a specialty malt until you have perfected making a malt base,” Ade said. “The limiting factor in malting right now is not being able to make as much as the brewers are asking for!”

Part of the equation of crafting a truly local beverage is using local grains, a local maltster, and other ingredients and inputs local to the brewery or distillery. Developing that supply chain, however, requires rebuilding of the infrastructure, each step of the way.

Both maltsters have had to design their own equipment. While Ade was eventually able to have a company fabricate his equipment, Johnson built and set-up his equipment from scratch.

“Many of the early malt houses built their own unique one-off systems based on their own experience and available capital,”Ade said. “I’m happy to see IPEC to be the first full service fabricator in North America to offer this equipment now.” http://ipec-inc.com/

Even before the grains are malted, infrastructure issues occur. Once the grains are grown and harvested, and meet quality standards required for malting, getting them from the farm to the malt house isn’t as simple as moving a truck load.

Malting grains have a dormancy period, and need to sit from two to six months prior to use, or germination won’t occur. So storage for the grains is necessary, and neither farmers nor maltsters are entirely prepared to meet storage needs. Varieties can’t be mixed, so a need for small silos or other storage options exists.

Johnson will have more storage, in the form of two or three 40 ton silos, available next season. He’ll then be able to separately store loads of grain from several farms. Currently, some farmers will load the grain into one-ton totes, but “it’s a lot more work for the farmers,” he acknowledged.

“Most farmers don’t have small grain storage, so my solution so far has been to store grain at the malthouse,” Ade said. “However, it would be ideal for farmers to install onsite grain storage so we can seed more acres each year, to reduce the risk of losing corps due to weather or insects.”

Paying farmers a fair price is a core component of the farm to table movement, and craft maltsters are cognizant of their role. But they also need to charge a fair price for their malting services, potentially creating a premium on locally-malted grains that could cause some craft brewers to balk.

But so far, that hasn’t seemed to be the case.

“The reason raising local crops is appealing is the farmer and myself can agree on a fair price that we both benefit from, regardless of waht the commodity grain prices are doing,” Ade said. “I would not be in business if I didn’t think a profitable arrangement could be found with my farmers. I see this growing more and more profitable for both sides the longer we do it.”

Johnson, too, is focused on creating a local grain-malt-brew food chain that allows for profitability and viability for everyone along the supply chain. He currently purchases his malting barley from farmers at a price of .25cents/lb. He sells the malted grain at .90cents/lb.

“We put a lot of work into it,” he said of the added price from raw grain to high-quality malts. “We wanted to work the price for the farmers into our price. Everyone seems to be pretty happy with it.”

Johnson and Ade are among the cutting edge of maltsters, learning not only their craft, but participating in rebuilding a direct relationship between local farmers and the local brewing community. The experience has been both challenging and rewarding. The malting and craft brewing communities – as well as the farming community – are growing together to craft not only beverages, but a local supply chain as well.

“Small malt is in its infancy right now, but don’t be surprised to see two or three more malt houses here in Texas in the next five years, and 50 or so operating across the United States,” Ade said. “We have organized the Craft Maltsers Guild www.craftmalting.com, and the community of maltsters keeps growing at an exponential rate. This is just the beginning of the malting revolution in North America!”

Resources:

Brandon Ade, Maltster/Manager, Blacklands Malt, LLC
530-BUY-MALT (530-289-6258) brandon@blacklandsmalt.com, www.blacklandsmalt.com

Michael Johnson, East Coast Malts, 2012 Dryden Road, Freeville, NY 13068, www.eastcoastmalts.com
(607) 280-1047

Paul Schwarz, Professor, Department of Plant Sciences, NORTH DAKOTA STATE UNIVERSITY, Harris Hall 201
Dept 7670, PO Box 6050, Fargo, ND 58108-6050, (701) 231-7732 http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/plantsciences

Bill Verbeten (M.S., CCA) Regional Extension Agronomist, NWNY Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Team
Cornell Cooperative Extension (585)313-4457 cell, http://www.nwnyteam.org/