Sign In


Latest News
The Beer Industry’s Bet on New Barley Varietals

The Beer Industry’s Bet on New Barley Varietals

Global warming has wreaked havoc on beer production from all angles, in all regions of the United States. Across the country, climate change has jeopardized the quality and quantity of hops, exacerbated water shortages and—perhaps most significantly for brewers—threatened the future of malting barley, a key ingredient in beer.

The cool climate of the American Northwest—specifically that of North Dakota, Idaho and Montana—has long been a dominant factor in the U.S.’s production of malting barley. But, like most of the West, these states have been confronting major drought conditions. Drought-stress on the annual grass has led to a steep decrease in yields—down a whopping 30% in 2021—and resulted in lower-quality grains.

You May Also Like: Cidermakers Have Long Feared the ‘Bubble Tax.’ A New Bill Could Change Everything.

“Beer is mostly water, and then, after water, it’s mostly malt,” says Andrew Zinn, owner of Weaverville, North Carolina’s Leveller Brewing Co. When U.S. malt production drops—as it has in recent years—it creates major problems for brewers.

To counteract these increasingly common issues, land grant universities have been shifting their malting barley sights to regions that historically haven’t been able to successfully grow the critical crop. From North Carolina to Oregon, newly developed winter barley varieties could provide brewers with a stable supply of a pivotal component in beer production.

A Fermenting Crisis

“The problem is that in a year when you have a low amount of malt that’s produced in the U.S., it’s not a year that we drink less beer,” says Nicholas Santantonio, assistant professor of plant and environmental sciences at Virginia Tech. Santantonio leads the university’s small grains breeding program, which focuses on breeding for disease resistance.

Following 2021’s droughts, for instance, brewers had to purchase shipfuls of substandard malt from outside the country. “Because this industry is so concentrated in such a small area, you have these shifts in weather—these off years where things are really different or really bad—and that means that the system itself, the whole supply chain, has vulnerabilities in it.”

You May Also Like: Why This Cult Beer Is Illegal in 15 States

While better than the historically low yields of 2021, in both 2022 and 2023, North America’s barley harvests still remained under the five-year average. And, like the low-quality malts that have been imported from overseas, many of last year’s crops were not up to snuff.

A significant portion of the barley harvested contained higher-than-desired protein levels, which can lead to a number of potential problems. The resulting beers often end up cloudy and, even more concerning, high protein can create excessive foam during the fermentation process, leading to dangerous boil overs and, potentially, third-degree burns for workers.

Diversifying the growing range of barley could help to mitigate these kinds of issues by increasing both the quality and quantity of the integral cereal grain.

Avalon barley at Bays Best Feed in Virginia – Image Courtesy of RadCraft

Winter Barley Brews Potential From Coast-to-Coast

Malting barley is a cool-climate crop that has traditionally been planted in the spring and harvested in late summer. In its U.S. growing regions, this is when drought and disease pressures, such as powdery mildew and various rusts, are most likely to occur. But a burgeoning slew of winter barley varieties circumvents the stresses of these geographic and time constraints, working with the changing climate, rather than against it.

Avalon, which entered commercial production last year, was released as the first malting barley from Virginia Tech’s small grains breeding program. It was introduced by the university in 2020 after a decade of development. Derived from a cross of high-yielding feed barley, Thoroughbred, Avalon was specifically designed to thrive in America’s Southeast—an area that has long struggled to successfully grow the cereal grain.

“Barley doesn’t like high heat and doesn’t like humidity,” says Ashley McFarland, vice president and technical director of the American Malting Barley Association. “The humidity is really from more of a disease standpoint.” Planted in fall, Avalon largely avoids the warm weather stresses that once characterized Southeast spring barley. It boasts moderate resistance to leaf rust and powdery mildew, says Santantonio.

You May Also Like: ‘Ground to Glass’: Heritage Distilleries Oversee Every Step of the Whiskey-Making Process

Universities from Cornell to Oregon State have also been developing their own regionally-adapted winter varieties. Additionally, farmers in cold-climate areas like Minnesota, North Dakota and New Jersey have been integrating winter barley into crop rotations.

In Oregon, for example, Willamette Valley farmers and researchers—who have traditionally grown spring barley—are experimenting with winter barley. Eastward, Grand Rapids, Michigan—which is home to about 40 breweries—has likewise endured hotter, drier summers. Because of barley’s susceptibility to various molds, including pernicious vomitoxins, West Michigan farmers have been growing both spring and winter barley.

While rising temperatures may seem like a boon for growers of winter barley, there are, of course, some agricultural downsides. The crop performs best with snow as an insulator, says Kevin Slagh, head maltster for Emergent Malt, a small-batch malt producer in Zeeland, Michigan.

Local Production Promises Wide-Ranging Benefits

The rapid pace of these sorts of local environmental changes underscores the importance of climate-resilient crops specific to the conditions of a given region. “We kind of need to stack the deck to make sure we’ve got as many options in front of us as possible,” says Brent Manning, co-founder of Asheville’s Riverbend Malthouse. Manning says he knows farmers working with Southeast-specific Avalon as far away as New Jersey and Indiana. “I don’t think we have as long of a horizon to develop varieties as we once did.”

But the potential for winter barley goes well beyond serving as a hedge for erratic weather.

If barley stays in the ground after the summer growing season, it also serves as a cover crop, which can help to sequester carbon, retain water and improve the overall health and quality of the soil. “In theory, [it] will then help protect the soil from erosion and also will help tie up some of those nutrients that might have ran off in other circumstances,” says McFarland.

You May Also Like: Regenerative Certifications Are Booming Right Now. Are They Worth It?

Similarly, it could help brewers to save money—and emissions—on shipping. Beer is already heavy and pricey to transport. Incorporating locally-produced malting barley into the mix saves on those financial and carbon costs, while offering brewers new ingredients and flavors to add to their existing arsenal.

Naturally, the cereal grain deeply impacts the nuances of beer, not to mention aroma and mouthfeel. Zinn believes these locally-produced malting barleys could help beer-loving cities, like his home base of Asheville, refine their brewing ethos and help them to cement a regional identity.

In January, he released Leveller’s first Avalon-made beer and has been experimenting with the grain in a rye lager, farmhouse IPA and a Czech-style Pilsner. He thinks the Avalon malt particularly shines in the latter, performing similarly to previous malts while retaining the grassy and wildflower undertones of the regionally-appropriate malting barley.

Add up all the benefits—the interesting flavor profiles, advantages to local farmers and the overall climate impact—says Zinn, “moving barley close to home makes a lot of sense.”

Source link

Related Posts