Growing rye for malting

WCBN-55-1-Growing-Rye-for1by Tamara Scully
Cereal grains are no longer regulated to commodity grain markets or cover crop use. Instead, they are in demand by the growing population of craft maltsters and brewers, and are fueling the growth of this rapidly emerging market.
Hartwick College, in Oneonta, NY, invited farmers, brewers, maltsters and researchers from around the country – and included seven international guests – for its weekend Farmer/Brewer conference, “A Maltster in the Rye.” Conference workshops were aimed at highlighting the correlation between the actual growing of the grains – including variety selection, agronomics and environment, and management practices – to the ability of the maltster and brewer to craft high-quality, unique products.
Although barley is commonly malted and used in brewing beer, other grains can – and more frequently are – being utilized by craft brewers. One product of interest is rye.
Craft maltsters are “looking for opportunities to be able to set ourselves apart and find unique things that are going to be available from our local farms,” maltster Andrea Stanley, of Valley Malt in Hadley, MA said. “Rye is an opportunity for us to work with farmers in our area who are not necessarily grain farmers.”
Growing malting quality cereal grains offers farmers a chance to “step into a maturing industry,” and find opportunities to fit these specialty grains into their farm plans. Winter rye works well in organic rotations, and offers the farmer the opportunity to market this cover crop.
“This is how rye fits into our local supply chain,” Stanley said. “We’re opening up doors. I’m excited that maybe we’ll start doing this more with wheat,” and other grains.
Growing Malting Rye
But production of malting grains takes time and management. Rye – or other grains – must have the characteristics needed to make good malt. Even if the variety is good for malting, management practices from seed to harvest need to promote and protect the quality of the grain.
“In craft brewing, malting, distilling…there’s been a resurgence, a lot of interest, in rye,” Dr. Paul Schwartz from North Dakota State University said. But research into “which cultivars are best” for craft beverage purposes has all but stopped with universities dropping their research in recent decades, so data on genotypes is not extensive and needs to be improved.
The craft beverage industry has caused renewed interest in rye breeding and research programs. Schwartz is conducting research on the chemical components of rye and their impact on malting. One serious issue he encountered was the lack of availability of viable samples of rye varieties to use in malting analysis.
“We need to educate our growers. They need to deliver that rye to us in a livable condition,” he said. “Fusarium seems to really like rye. DON is going to be an issue there,” Schwartz said.
Dr. Mark Sorrells, Cornell University, explained that rye is “a very diverse crop,” and has a wide variety of potential uses. Milling, distilling, malting, brewing, feed, and biogas markets exist. Ryes can tolerate poor soil fertility, and are the most winter hardy of the cereal crops.
Cornell trials involving rye varieties, plus one or two wheat varieties, with 14-18 different cultivars planted each year, have included hybrid and open pollinated ryes. Sorrells encourages growers to look at the data across multiple years when selecting rye varieties, as there are year-to-year changes to take into consideration.
Rye has a small grain size, does not have a hull, and the standard yield is about 56 bushels per acre. Hybrids offer some improved characteristics. Open pollinated varieties of rye have been used as forage crops, and not bred for seed quality, which is needed for malting. Danko is a good open pollinated variety, but has increased lodging when compared to the hybrids.
“Not only do they have high yield, but they also have very high lodge resistance,” he said of hybrid rye varieties, which have shown a 30 percent increase in yield over open pollinated ryes.
The increase yield seen with hybrid ryes has to do with the increased length of the period from flower to maturity. This allows more time for the seed to grow. Because hybrids are produced from two inbred lines, which are crossed and then planted in the field to produce saleable seed; farmers musts repurchase hybrid seed each year.
Malting rye can be an option for farmers currently growing wheat. Wheat is the cereal crop most commonly grown in Western New York, Sorrells said. The yield for soft white wheat is about 59 bushels/acre, while the best hybrid rye yield was 107 bushels/acre, and the best open pollinated rye variety was at 89 bushels/acre in Cornell trials.
Farmer Perspective of Malting Grains
New York grower Thor Oechsner, who farms 1200 acres of organic cereal grains for the seed, flour and malting industries reminded farmers of the importance of handling the grain for the craft beverage market. From seeding to transporting, malting grains have unique requirements.
“When you are growing grains for malting, you are basically growing seed because these things have to germinate,” Oechsner said. “What do I do in the field that affects the product when it goes to the processor?”
Maltsters require grains that are free from disease and pest issues: which are dried, stored and maintained at precise moisture levels; which are free from debris; and whose seeds are viable, as malting requires excellent germination. There can be no off-flavors associated with mold and moisture. Kernel size is important, as is consistency.
Fertilizer issues, weed control and scouting for pest and disease will require intensive management practices. Harvest management includes preventing seed breakage, harvesting with the proper combine set and at the proper time for maintaining quality. Storage requires drying the grains, cleaning the grains, and regulating storage bin temperatures.
Vomitoxin levels are extremely important in malting, and Oechsner emphasized that managing the diseases is “one of the big challenges” in the malting grains market.
If grains are not of malting quality, other markets have to be available. Maltsters and brewers need to find a way to share the risk of crop failure with farmers, as these alternate markets are not added-value, and producing a high-quality grain for malting takes more time, effort and infrastructure on the farm than commodity grain markets require.
Those growing commodity grains are used to emptying the bins into tractor-trailers, not filling small orders continually. Malting grains aren’t “harvest, store, transport, done.” Separate grain bins are required for different varieties of the grain. The grower needs the ability to keep harvests separate in storage due to quality issues and needs to keep stored grains within 40 degrees of the outside temperatures year-round to prevent moisture issues. The importance of seed cleaning, and smaller-batch delivery cannot be stressed enough when growing for the malting industry, Oechsner said.
A repeated sentiment heard at the Farmer/Brewer conference was that all segments of the industry have to be willing to take some risk in order to get local farmers interested in growing high-quality malting grains in the volumes needed for the industry to grow and thrive.
“The farmer can’t bear all the risk,” June Russell, of Greenmarket Grow NYC said. “If we can’t build a market, farmers will go back to corn and soy.”

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