by Tamara Scully
The kickoff session of the inaugural Empire State Barley and Malt Summit included a craft beverage tasting event, featuring beers and distilled spirits made from New York state ingredients, But before attendees could taste the array of New York’s craft beverages, they gathered to listen to a panel presentation focusing on the “Ingredients for Success.”
Without local farmers growing the crops to be processed into value-added alcoholic beverages there would be no place in the food chain for locally-grown imbibing. Farmers are only the first step, once the crop is grown and harvested, it has to be manipulated by maltsters and brewers to create beer. Growing the local craft beer demand requires great raw ingredients, craftsmen who know how to handle them, and a community willing to work together for success.
Farmer Corey Mosher, of Mosher Farms in Bouckville, NY, began planting malting barley in 2012, replacing a portion of their wheat crop. Mosher Farms is a diversified fruit, vegetable and grain farm. Today, they grow 250 acres of malting barley varieties — Endeavor and Scala. It works as a rotation crop in place of the wheat, but it isn’t the same from a growing perspective.
“We are growing a new crop. It isn’t just like replanting wheat,” Mosher emphasized.
That’s because the buyers of malting grains require a crop that meets certain specifications in order to be utilized in the brewing process. Malting grains have to be alive — 95 percent germination rate is the minimum required — and they have to be free from pests, mold, disease and debris. Heating can harm the crop, as can excess moisture.
The crop not only has to be harvested in a timely manner to reduce any pre-harvest sprouting, and handled carefully to prevent kernel breakage, it also has to be properly dried down to the ideal storage moisture level, and maintained at that level until the crop is used. To move high-quality malting barley through the supply chain from seed to suds takes diligence, cooperation and collaboration between farmer, maltster and brewer.
“Having maltsters willing to work with the crop and collaborate with growers to improve the crop to get what is needed,” has been a key to the viability of growing malting barley, Mosher said.
“The key, I think, to being six years in and still really positive about the experience we’ve had with barley… is in cultivating these relationships that we have with our buyers.”
“We want breweries to use these malts we make. You can’t make quality malt out of bad barley or grains,” Ted Hawley, owner and head maltster of New York Craft Malt, located in Batavia, said. Hawley’s operation, located on his farm, was the first malt house registered in New York since the Prohibition days.
Hawley noted that educated farmers are the best bet for maltsters. Aside from issues with germination, harvest timing and handling needs, quality malting grains just haven’t been bred for the Northeast recently — as barley production moved westward — and having a selection of malting varieties which grow well locally is key to a thriving craft beer industry in the state.
Locally grown grains open up “a whole new realm of brewing,” and open-minded brewers, as well as growers who understand the specific agronomy of the crop and its peculiarities, are needed, he said.
Hawley also emphasized that maltsters have to accept some of the burden of storing malting grains. Asking the farmers to continue to be responsible for proper long-term storage of the malting grain is not going to work.
“Malt houses need to store their own grain,” he said.
While it is hard to decline a crop for poor quality, it is necessary to do so from a malting perspective. Secondary malting grain markets for the farmers are needed Hawley said, so crops that don’t meet the quality standards needed for malting can still be profitable, enticing more farmers to take a risk on malting grain production and move the industry ahead.
Jason Sahler, owner and head brewer at Strong Rope Brewery in Brooklyn is using 100 percent New York grown hops in his beers, and is “pushing the boundaries” at 90-95 percent New York grown malting grains. He can’t get to 100 percent on the malting grains, because he requires specialty malts, which just aren’t readily available.
Sahler’s business plan, from the get-go, was to use local ingredients exclusively — or at least as much as was available initially, so any premium paid for local grains and malts was already anticipated in his business planning. Even so, obtaining local specialty malts is challenging.
He’d like to see dark wheats, roasted grains and caramel malts available in the local craft beer supply chain. To get to this point, Sahler foresees the need for “a variety of sizes of breweries” to commit to local grain use. This allows farmers to grow small sized lots, or to expand their malting grains crops as they become more experienced, offering maltsters some variety. It also allows brewers to expand their local beer offerings.
Flexibility to experiment and find the local grains and malts that fit into a brewery’s system isn’t a simple process. It requires commitment, and the willingness to participate in the development of an emerging market.
“We have to take the time, and be willing to put in the effort,” to develop a local grains supply chain, he said. 
Having locally sourced craft beer depends on the end-user, too. Without consumer demand for these beverages, even the best ingredients and most talented maltsters and brewers won’t keep this industry thriving. Beer has to sell.
GrowNYC has been working to “turn cooking and baking grains into brewing and distilling” ones,
Henry Blair said. For the past two years, the non-profit has been introducing alcoholic beverages, made with regionally-grown ingredients, into their New York City based Greenmarkets. All producers must be licensed as New York State Farm Breweries or Farm Distilleries to be included in the Greenmarkets.
“We’re trying to help strengthen this industry from a consumer side,” Blair said.
As a part of the effort, NYC restaurants have been highlighting beers from local brewers who are utilizing local grains. GrowNYC is also partnering with Cornell University to breed naked (hull-less) barley for a variety of uses, including malting and brewing.
Supply chain networking
The biggest hurdle in the local grain for local brewing and distilling supply chain is logistical: how do you move the crop along the supply chain, matching supply and demand every step of the way, while meeting the quality requirements of every player in this newly developed market? And how can this be profitable for everyone from grower to brewer?
The Empire State Barley and Malt Summit brought together representatives from all disciplines that have invested their time and expertise to bring the emerging local craft beverage supply chain to fruition. Getting things right from seed to suds takes dedication every step of the way.