By: Cheryl Gray
Barley has been around for some 10,000 years. When this ancient grain was introduced in the United States, in New England during the 17th century, it was produced specially to quench the thirst of colonists who wanted to make beer.
Malted barley remains the key ingredient in the world’s oldest and most consumed alcoholic beverage. Today, the market for malting barley is directly impacted by the weather and economy of the area where it grows. In the U.S., 90% of barley grows throughout the Northern Plains into the Pacific Northwest. The climate of this region is colder and arider, ideal conditions for producing the high-quality barley needed for brewing beer.
Grown Under Contract
Virtually all U.S. malting barley is grown under contract with a brewer or maltster. Those contracts generally call for specific varieties demanded by breweries—typically two-row or six-row. Breweries determine what barley varieties they need based upon brewing techniques, cost and the desired flavor of the finished product. Many craft brewers prefer to brew beers using directly sourced ingredients and will partner with local barley growers, eventually using the “locally grown” angle in their product marketing.
Barley growers generally seek contracts that secure price premiums in exchange for growing a specific barley variety. Those premium prices help the grower offset the higher production costs tied to a lower-yielding crop. Developing a dedicated crop of malting barley is not without substantial risk. Bad weather and disease can destroy an otherwise profitable yield. Any product that doesn’t make the grade gets relegated to the feed market and downgraded in price, which for the grower can be half or less of the original crop value.
The Value of American-Grown Barley
According to The Brewers Association, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Colorado and Wyoming are the top five states producing barley for malting. These regions use the power of science, technology, economics and strategic planning to gain an edge in a marketplace that is increasingly global.
The U.S. Grains Council helps track the journey of America’s barley crop from farm to glass around the world. Its latest statistics reveal that American-grown barley accounts for more than 190 million barrels of annual beer production in the U.S. alone. Foreign markets, including Mexico, are taking notice. Under NAFTA, malted barley from the U.S. enters Mexico duty-free. That is an attractive option to Mexico’s breweries, which depend upon imported malted barley because Mexico has no way to produce it independently. According to the Grains Council, Mexico purchased more than 18 million bushels of barley, worth $209 million in its most recent purchasing year.
It is that buying potential that makes global markets attractive to the U.S. malting barley industry. Brian Sorenson, Program Director for the Northern Crop Institute of North Dakota State University, said that in addition to its research-driven programs and courses, the NCI plays a critical role in connecting barley breeders, scientists and growers with buyers and processors worldwide.
“NCI helps to bring U.S. barley growers in touch with global markets by providing courses to educate grain buyers on how the U.S. grain handling and trading systems function,” Sorenson said. “NCI’s Grain Procurement Management for Importers Course is held each September and typically educates over 30 participants (mostly from overseas) on how to purchase high-quality grains from the U.S. and showcases the crops produced in the Northern Great Plains states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.”
The NCI is also a significant player in the science and research designed to help stakeholders reach what Sorenson describes as the ultimate goal: to produce optimal quality malting barley for brewing consistent, top-quality beer.
“It is important for each of those involved to understand what the other players contend within their particular role,” said Sorenson. “Developing new barley varieties that can make it possible for farmers to grow and deliver the quality needed by the maltster profitably, and ultimately, the brewer is an extremely difficult set of tasks. Barley breeders work hard to stay ahead of the changing agronomic challenges, such as crop diseases, as well as the need for high production yield, and at the same time satisfy the quality demands of the end-users.”
Quality control factors include color and kernel plumpness, protein content, moisture, skinned or broken kernels, and sprout damage.
Breeding Strong Varietals
Science is the universal language in barley breeding, and Dr. Paul Schwarz is among the leaders in research, development and breeding applications for the malted barley industry. He is a professor at NDSU’s Department of Plant Sciences, specializing in the area of malting barley quality. NDSU has a barley breeding program, as do other land grant universities in barley producing states.
Dr. Schwarz told Beverage Master Magazine that science has a pivotal role in breeding new varieties of malting barley as well as sustaining the successes of current ones.
“Breeding is the application of several branches of science including biology, genetics-genomics, biochemistry and statistics,” said Schwarz. “Barley breeding has closely followed developments in science and often uses the newest tools. As an example, in the past, breeders would make a cross and then have to screen thousands of progeny in the field or lab to select the most desirable. Today, with advances in genomics, they can identify genes of importance and use DNA techniques to screen lines that have desired traits.”
Schwarz also stresses that the breeding process combines the expertise of scientists across multiple fields. “When we think breeding, we think breeder,” he said. “However, the development of new varieties is a team effort. In the past, it has involved the breeder/geneticist, an agronomist, a plant pathologist, and maybe an end product specialist (cereal chemist) to evaluate malting quality. Today, this list has expanded to include a molecular biologist and often a bio-informaticist[to handle the large amounts of data gathered]
Fusarium Head Blight
One of the biggest threats to a barley crop that NDSU and other land-grant schools try to combat on behalf of barley growers is fusarium head blight, also known as “head scab.” This disease infects the head of the crops, reducing grain yield and impacting the producer’s bottom line. While FHB is more prevalent in humid, wetter climates such as the eastern U.S., in recent years, changing weather patterns have forced barley growers as far as the Northern Plains to begin routinely safeguarding their crops using fungicides. Malting companies across the country sample and grade every truckload of barley coming into receiving stations, regularly deploying stringent and frequent testing for FHB and its accompanying mycotoxin contamination.
There are assessment tools that can predict weather patterns and other factors in any region of the U.S. where FHB is likely to develop. FHB forums are held around the country, including those spearheaded by the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative. This group also coordinates research projects aimed at combining current data with new exploratory channels designed to develop tools and strategies to reduce FHB and mycotoxin contamination. The research benefits barley producers, malting companies, and the breweries that use malted barley.
Advocating for Growers
Such potential risks for barley growers are among the subjects on the agenda of the National Barley Growers Association, which advocates for public policy on behalf of its members. Dale Thorenson, a former North Dakota farmer, is an agricultural lobbyist with Gordley Associates and an officer in the National Barley Growers Association.
“NBGA has worked to try to keep farm policy equitable between crops so that the market price determines what crops – including barley – are grown, rather than farm policy,” Thorenson told Beverage Master Magazine. “This includes having a viable federal crop insurance policy available for barley including the malt barley endorsement, which provides coverage based on the malt price rather than the underlying feed value for barley. It’s also important for barley growers and the malt and beer industry that adequate funding is appropriated every year for the wheat and barley scab initiative, so that research continues on methods to combat fusarium head blight. Finally, NBGA has joined with the malt and beer industry to support equitable excise tax rates for beer, and the coalition was successful in getting the Craft Beer Modernization & Tax Reform Act (CBMTRA) included in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. That reform expires at the end of 2019, and we are still working at getting this legislation extended into future years.”
Public policy, scientific applications and emerging markets create a unique mix for malting barley growers, whose success is measured by consistently producing successful crops that satisfy maltsters and breweries who, in turn, seek to satisfy the tastes of beer consumers.