Where Your Brews Come From: A Deeper Dive into Barley for Beer

, Kendall Science Fellow | July 14, 2016, 11:21 am EST
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A colorful sampling of craft beers from Alluvial Brewing in my former home of Ames, Iowa. Even with the rapidly growing demand for craft beers, localizing the full supply chain to support this budding industry, specifically in the Upper Midwest, is not a simple process. It takes time, research, policy, as well as dedicated individuals, to make it a reality.

A colorful sampling of craft beers from Alluvial Brewing in my former home of Ames, Iowa. Even with the rapidly growing demand for craft beers, localizing the full supply chain to support this budding industry, specifically in the Upper Midwest, is not a simple process. It takes time, research, policy, as well as dedicated individuals, to make it a reality.

While the summer is in full swing, a season often full of barbecued food and adult beverages, this is a good time to think about what it takes to make a truly local brew. Michigan is a great case study to understand the challenges of localizing the craft beer supply chain, so in this post I’ll focus on barley grown there. That’s because Michigan has the second most diverse agriculture in the country, after California, raising forty plus different products (ranging from chicken to cherries to pumpkins), each of which brings in more than a million dollars annually. It is also home to over 200 craft breweries, ranking it sixth in the United States in this category.

The basics of barley for beer

Let me introduce you to Ashley McFarland with Michigan State University Extension, who helps run the Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center. Ashley is the first local food champion in this story.

When McFarland started at the research station in 2013, she sought to elevate the economic opportunities for local farmers. She quickly realized that there was a burgeoning demand from consumers for in-state beer and a subsequent desire from producers to grow the barley for Michigan’s craft breweries. She describes Michigan consumers as demanding for in-state grown products because “they know they can get almost anything they want, outside of tropical fruit!”

Ashley McFarland, Director of Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center, in a field of maturing barley in Michigan.When we spoke recently, she reiterated to me that it would be very useful to have more scientists studying the unique barley management challenges in Michigan to receive more funding for further study. Photo: Ashley McFarland.

Ashley McFarland, Director of Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center, in a field of maturing barley in Michigan.When we spoke recently, she reiterated to me that it would be helpful to have more scientists studying the unique barley management challenges in Michigan. Photo: Ashley McFarland.

Michigan has historically dedicated a modest acreage to barley—close to 300,000 acres a hundred years ago—but most of that was grown for livestock feed (cattle don’t appear to be as fussy about the taste of grains as humans are about the flavor of their beer!). Barley has been the main grain used to make beer for thousands of years. Other small grain crops such as wheat and rye can serve the same purpose, contributing to the diverse flavors and styles of beer now available.

Beer-brewing is similar in many ways to making tea or coffee, but instead you “steep” the  cocktail with these small grain seeds. Also, a critical beer-making step is ensuring that the proper enzymes convert the starch in barley to smaller, less complex sugar molecules. Yeast needs these simple sugars for the fermentation process that produces alcohol and carbon dioxide, the booze and bubbles in your beer.

Ensuring those proper starch-to-sugar enzymes are available is a multi-part process. The first step comes from malting the barley (more on that soon), essentially soaking the barley in water to sprout the seed, releasing the necessary enzymes (which are stored temporarily in the dormant seed.) The second step occurs in the “mashing” phase of brewing, when hot water of specific temperatures is poured over the grain to activate these enzymes.

This all matters because the perfect brew requires highly consistent barley grain that has been appropriately malted. To ensure quality and consistency in the barley seed requires finesse in how the crop is planted and harvested, and a lot of other tender loving care while it grows.

Research represents another bottleneck in the craft beer’s growth

As acreage of barley declined in Michigan over the past century (in 2013 there were only 10,000 acres, with most still sold for livestock feed), so did the research efforts around the crop. However, to rebuild an industry, that research is critical. Given the host of considerations needed to make sure high-quality barley arrives to malt houses, a slew of producer questions need answering on everything from managing weeds to water to fertilizer.

One of the major considerations with growing barley in wetter regions such as Michigan (it is now grown mostly in areas with much less rain) is a fungal disease called Fusarium head blight. The disease thrives in humid conditions and creates a toxin that makes grain unsuitable for human consumption. Researchers are learning how to manage for the disease (with things like crop rotations and selecting the least susceptible varieties), but such efforts take time. Untimely rains close to barley harvest can pre-germinate the seeds, another no-no for malting. This also makes barley production difficult in wetter areas.

Ensuring that malting standards are met requires testing, and McFarland was pleased to share that they recently got a lab up and running at their experiment station to support producers with this step. If malt barley does not meet quality standards it could be sold as livestock feed. Cornell University Extension recognizes that this is another component that needs accounting for in the supply chain; they recommend farmers sign contracts with malt houses to account up front for quality needs.

Processing matters: Malt houses need to coevolve with an increase in barley acreage

Ryan Hamilton, lead maltster with Pilot Malt House, poses proudly between steep vessels. This is where the raw barley seed is soaked for 2-3 days, allowing it to sprout into a young plant. Then the kilning process dries down the seed, halting its growth, and in turn providing the barley with its flavor, color and aroma. Photo: Ryan Hamilton

Ryan Hamilton, lead maltster with Pilot Malt House, poses proudly between steep vessels. This is where the raw barley seed is soaked for 2-3 days, allowing it to sprout into a young plant. Then the kilning process dries down the seed, halting its growth, and in turn providing the barley with its flavor, color and aroma. Photo: Ryan Hamilton

Processing barley for beer is a bit of a chicken or the egg situation, in that both malt barley production and processing streams would ideally evolve side by side in a region. Once a farmer has grown that perfect, high-quality barley crop for malting, the work to get it into your cold brew is far from over. Very careful handling for transport is required to not to spoil or damage the barley seed in any number of ways.  Too much heat or humidity in transit, for example, can kill or pre-germinate the seed, which would hamper consistent malting.

That makes local malting not only critical to ensure a regional supply chain, but also fundamental to a viable product. Michigan State Extension notes that access to high-quality barley is the major limiting factor for in-state malt houses to truly take off as viable businesses.

The second local food hero in the story is Ryan Hamilton of Pilot Malt House near Grand Rapids, Michigan, who when we spoke he told me that he “really developed passion for working with growers directly and being a part of local value chain.”

Since Hamilton started with Pilot Malt House in 2013, his clientele has grown from one barley grower to as many as three dozen at any given time. He is a big proponent of signing contracts with his farmers, “so that everyone knows what is expected of each other,” including Pilot’s own quality expectations as well as farmer expectations for yields.

Even with contracts, Hamilton admits that “it’s a bold leap of faith to grow malting barley in Michigan right now.” In the past two years he’s had just about half of the barley received meet their quality standard, mostly because of contamination from the Fusarium toxin and exposure to pre-harvest sprout. More research on barley varieties that have greater disease resistance and dormancy (to avoid pre-harvest sprout) could go a long to way to helping reduce that leap of faith.

A more regional food economy requires local champions, substantial research and sound policy

There are certainly ways that policy can strengthen emergent industries such as malt barley. New York enacted a “Farm Brewery” law in 2013 that allows farms to open breweries if they source a percentage of ingredients from in-state producers. That percentage increases over time to allow the industry to grow, and brews that meet the requirements are designated as a “New York State labeled beer”

The loss of researchers studying diverse crops is a common story across agricultural universities. This is part of the reason we advocate for more funds to support more diverse agricultural systems. There are plenty of environmental and economic reasons that we do not want to completely homogenize agricultural landscapes.

As I wrote in a prior post about craft beer, it is one industry (of many more needed!) that offers promise for a more regional, sustainable food economy. Farmers need markets. This is not to say we can or should grow all crops everywhere, but we can certainly do better with diversified agriculture and diversified economies than at present. This type of change won’t happen by itself: it starts with dedicated local food champions, sustained research, and sound policy.

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