Alternative Malting Grains

Barley is arguably the most common grain used to make a base malt for brewing. Base malts set the stage for fermenting, by converting starches to sugar. Barley’s high enzymatic activity means that starch conversion is favored, and brewers can count on it to do its job. Base malts typically comprise more than 80 percent of the grain bill.

But it isn’t all about the barley. Brewers also use other malted grains. Rye, wheat, sorghum- along with buckwheat, which is not a true grain – are some other crops which can be used to create base malts for brewing. These and other malted grains can also be used as components of barley based beers. With such a variety of malting grains, the possibilities for craft brewers are limited only by their imaginations, and the market.

Brewing Other Beers

“The use of rye, wheat and sorghum are for specific styles of beer that local craft brewers might not want to focus on due to business plans. At the end of the day it is all about sales,” Dan Gridley, of Farm Boy Farms and Brewery, in Pittsboro, North Carolina, said. “Brewers start off focusing on their best beers based on years of experience. If a brewer is not familiar with using these grains, then it will be challenging to persuade them to use them.”

Brewers and maltsters focused on using local ingredients originally began to piece the puzzle together with two standard beer ingredients: hops and malting barley. These crops are now the focus of Extension outreach programs, university research and farm-to-table supply chains. As farmers, maltsters and brewers further develop local beer foodsheds, more ingredients are being added. With a growing interest in reviving the local beer supply chain, from grain to finished product, the time is ripe for alternative grain crops to enter the malting market.

Farm Boy Farms grows a variety of grains for the brewing industry, and malts them as well. They malt their own grains, as well as purchase grains for malting from other local farmers. Their malts are sold locally to breweries and home brewers. Gridley knows all sides of the business: growing, malting and brewing. Connecting the players in each sector means anticipating supply and demand.

“Rye beers can be brewed and consumed year round. Wheat beers are typically brewed in the spring and summer due to the beer being lighter, and, based on the customer, more refreshing than a heavy porter or stout. The key is to reach out to local craft breweries who are focused on using rye year-round, wheat six months out of the year, and sorghum if the gluten-free market is present and profitable based on projections for sales,” said Gridley.

While Farm Boy Farms grows 75 acres of malting barley, acreage of other grains for malting is much smaller, with five acres each of wheat, rye, and sorghum. Although the demand for alternative malting grains lags behind that for barley, their use in craft beer is growing as the industry evolves.

“We have one brewery who sources a majority of our rye malt. It is used in three of their beers,” Gridley said. “We have two breweries who source our wheat malt for their beers, and as the demand increases, it is easy to add acreage. We have one microbrewery who we source this gluten-free malt.

Growing Local Malting Grains

A brewer seeking these local malting grains might need to be patient. Grains take a while to grow, and planning and
proper preparation ensure a good crop.

“The issue is that the breweries need to commit to using the grains nearly eight months in advance so the fields can be properly prepared for a successful crop,” Gridley said. “No additional or alternative equipment is required to grow grains for malting. Jumping on board the craft farming tractor to support craft beer can occur easily,” if the farm is already growing grains.

But these other grains grown for malting do – as does malting barley – have to meet quality requirements. Each of the grains has its own cropping needs: they are not interchangeable from a farming standpoint, any more than they are from a malting or brewing one.

“Specific analysis of the grain during harvest – tissue analysis to determine appropriate nutrients to feed the grain, and after harvest – protein levels, moisture and vomitoxin, will be required for the maltster,” Gridley said.

Jeffrey Trout, of Poormon Farms in New York state, grows white wheat, red wheat, corn and buckwheat – in addition to malting barley – for Pioneer Malt, in Rochester. Trout has been under contract exclusively with Pioneer for several years.

“As long as there is a good secondary market and you can tolerate experimentation and learning from failure, and you really like intense management, these grains are worth a try,” Trout said. “However, I can’t emphasize enough that these grains are not ‘plant, forget, harvest, and sell’ crops.”

Cereal grains are actually grasses: the grain is only the fruit or seed. Corn is in this family, but requires more nitrogen than most of the other grain crops, Trout said. It has a good secondary market as a feed grain. Malting varieties require more dry down, and tend to have genetics which aren’t resistant to common diseases or pests.

“Corn is the most different from barley than the other crops,” he said.

Wheat’s biggest advantage over barley, from the grower’s perspective, is its longer harvest window. It also has a secondary market in flour, as well as feed, should the quality not be right for malting. Its other cultivation requirements are on par with barley, although it requires some more nitrogen. Trout grows both white an red wheat for the malting market.

Buckwheat, which is not a true cereal grain, but a pseudo grain, has different growing requirements. While it is relatively worry-free after it is established, the germination and harvesting can prevent challenges. The stems of the plant tend to still be green when the grain is ready for harvest, which causes difficulty. Before planting – which occurs in early summer for a harvest after the first frost – seed bed preparation has to be precise, according to Trout.

“It does, however, represent a growing market for gluten-free products,” Trout said. “The secondary market is pretty strong as we have one of the largest mills locally, Birket Mill in Penn Yan.”

Trout has found that there is a premium for the malting grains. This season, his malting quality white and red wheat sold for $0.50/bushel more than non-malting acreage. The difference was more pronounced with corn, which sold for 2.5 times more per bushel when of malting quality. Barley and buckwheat malting markets paid approximately a ten percent premium per bushel.

Pricing is based on quality, Gridley said. The analysis of the grain post-harvest will determine if it meets malting requirements, and the ultimate sales price of the grain. Fertility monitoring in the field can help insure the protein range needed in small grains.

Malting Management

The malting process for all of these alternative grains – wheat, rye, sorghum – differs from that of barley. The steps are the same: steeping; germinating; kilning; and cleaning. But barley has an outer hull, as does corn. Grains without a hard outer hull need to be handled differently.

“Malting these grains, none of which have an outer hull, make the malting process different when compared to barley, which has an outer hull,” Gridley said. “These grains are able to absorb water quicker, which decreases the initial step of malting. The modification process is more technical, as the acrospire – the baby plant – grows on the outside of the seed which makes turning the grain more complex. The last step of the malting process, kilning, is decreased, too, as there is no additional hull.”

Corn poses its own complications. The ear has to be shucked. The corn has to be shelled. Then the malting process can begin. Pioneer Malts describes the malts they make, including corn, and a bit of the unique malting process for each, here:

As for gluten-free sorghum, “malting is extremely complex as this delicate grain requires a lot of attention,” Gridley explained.

Growing alternative grains for malting takes some extra attention, every step of the way. Cultivation and harvesting requirements are more precise than for other grain markets. Growing a crop which meets requirements for malting can be risky, so having a secondary market readily available is advised. These niche grains do command a premium as long as the quality parameters are met.

Maltsters have to make changes to the malting process, in relation to barley, when malting alternative grains. Malting these grains – rye, wheat, sorghum, corn, buckwheat – requires brewers who are willing to differentiate themselves, and beer drinkers who are open to new experiences. With the development of a supply chain – from the farm, to the malt house, and to the brewery – combined with America’s growing taste for niche craft beers; malting grains other than barley are taking root.

Additional Resources:

“NC Grains for Brewing and Distilling: FAQ,” North Carolina Cooperative Extension,