by Jon M. Casey
For brewers and distillers in the mid-Atlantic region who are looking for locally grown ingredients for their craft brewed beverages, the availability of desirable malted barley and other grains are limited. With that in mind, the Virginia Grain Producers Association hosted the Glasses of Grain Roundtable discussion at the Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond, VA on Nov. 3, 2015, to shed light on how this problem might be resolved. Sponsored by the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development, the afternoon roundtable addressed a number of challenges facing brewers and distillers.
More than 70 participants represented beverage industry segments that included grain production, malting, financial consulting and education. Panelists from agriculture and the brewing and distilling industries, offered ideas on how to meet the growing demand for local malted barley, an ingredient in short supply.
Currently, the demand for local malts far outweighs the supply. More importantly, the absence of local malting facilities requires locally grown grains to be transported to established malting houses in the Great Lakes region for malting, only to be returned to the mid-Atlantic breweries and distilleries for use as beverage ingredients.
Understandably, this drives up the cost for locally grown ingredients in a competitive industry that is growing, and is one that continues to provide slimmer and slimmer profit margins.
According to Billy Dawson, owner of Bay’s Best Feeds of Heathsville, VA, the ability to grow the more desirable, but more difficult two-row barley varieties instead of the easier to grow, less desirable six-row varieties, is an ongoing challenge. He said that it has been his experience that the soil and weather conditions in the mid-Atlantic region, makes growing two-row barley a 50-50 proposition.
“We started growing Thoroughbred variety barley, a Virginia variety,” he said. “I’ve been growing barley for the malting industry for seven years and the Thoroughbred variety does the best. Some brewers have come to rely upon that variety and they are doing very well with it. Two-row barley is another thing all together.”
“I delved into growing two-row barley, which is what brewers are looking for, and I’m batting 500! I’ve planted four crops of two-row barley,” he said. “Two did well, and two were a flop.”
He added that two-row barley was developed for growing in the upper Midwest and plains states where the humidity is low and annual rainfall is much less than in the mid-Atlantic. “That is a formula for failure for growing in this area. We can’t grow it. Storage is a problem as well.”
Dawson suggested that European varieties might be the answer. Since consistent growing characteristics and grain quality is extremely important, and because successful crops are being grown in European countries where the conditions are more like the mid-Atlantic, Dawson suggested growers might look into that option.
Dr. Wade Thomason of Virginia Tech Extension discussed the barley breeding program at Virginia Tech. He said it, “probably has the most extensive barley research program east of the Mississippi River.” Thomason stood in for Dr. Carl Griffey, who oversees most of the barley research at Virginia Tech. He said in the barley research program, the university looks for yield and yield stability, high test weights, disease resistance, high starch and corresponding high or low protein content and superior malt quality.
He said there are four main varieties grown in the eastern U.S. These varieties include Thoroughbred, a six-row variety developed by Virginia Tech, Charles and Endeavor, each two-row varieties developed by USDA-ARS, Idaho, and Wintmalt, a two-row, European variety that has done quite well since being released in 2009. Thomason went into some detail comparing Thoroughbred, Endeavor and Charles, comparing and contrasting more than a dozen parameters including winter survival, yield, test weight, Malt Extract percentage, protein content and overall quality. Charles ranked highest overall with a 41 followed by Endeavor at 38 and Thoroughbred at 31. He said that research continues at an increasing rate.
Brent Manning, the third agricultural panelist and owner of Riverbend Malt House of Asheville, NC, concluded the first segment of two roundtable discussions, by sharing his experiences following the malting of both six-row and two-row barley varieties. He said his company’s ultimate goal in providing high quality local (within 500 miles of the malt house) malts for the brewing industry is in an attempt to ultimately develop a distinctly southern beer style, unlike the styles of beers from southern California or Oregon, for example.
He said his company floor-malts approximately four tons of grain per batch, most of which is grown by Virginia and North Carolina growers. He said they steep the grain in water for two days, germinate it for four days, then kiln dry it for one day.
Noting how the closest major malt house is more than 1,000 miles away, he contrasted their source of barley supply as compared to the mid-Atlantic. Their barley comes from further west, The Bighorn Valley in Wyoming. When eastern brewers have to rely upon western malts, those ingredients have traveled 2,500 miles before arriving at breweries on the east coast.
“The advent of craft malt from eastern growers is an amazing opportunity to connect the local farming community…to this massive economic engine of craft beer,” he said, noting there are 180 breweries in North Carolina, over 100 in Virginia and continued growth in South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. “There is a 200 percent annual growth in the Southeast region according to brewery association data,” he said.
“Flavor is at the heart of craft brews,” he said. Making estimates on the brewing capacities of only four of the largest breweries in Virginia, Manning estimated the annual requirements for malt would be more than 50 million pounds. “That represents more than a 300 percent increase in the amount of malted barley that is needed annually, over 2014 numbers in Virginia.”
Brewing & Distilling Panel
Rick Wasman of Copper Fox Distillery, Sperryville, VA told the group that his process is one of producing his own malts from fruitwood smoking for the drying process. That goes hand in hand with his fruitwood (apple, peach, sugar maple and others) smoking of his barrels (rather than peat wood smoking) that are used to age the single malt whiskey his distillery produces. He said he produces 1,600-pound batches of custom flavored malts, every other day. That totals approximately 150 tons per year. Roughly, 40 tons are sold to a select number of brewers and distillers, while the bulk of the production is for his own use. His own malting is what he calls a “labor of love” and that is their business model. He plans to open a second malting facility in Waynesburg, VA in February 2016. That facility will do four tons every other day.
John Bryce, Technical Outreach Director, Master Brewers Association of the Americas, gave an overview of malt trials of Wintmalt, two-row barley. He focused on four distinct areas of excellence that brewers should consider if they want craft beer to be successful in Virginia. Those are quality, innovation, terroir and food safety. He encouraged brewers to go to the American Malting Barley Association for gaining knowledge about the kinds of malts that brewers might desire. He contrasted brewer’s use of malts with those of distillers who use different methods and specifications for malts. “Local is only a competitive advantage if you are also competitive on quality,”
Dr. Sean O’Keefe, Virginia Tech Department of Food Science & Technology, recapped the available options in food science courses that would be helpful to brewers and winemakers. Some of these courses include Fermentation Microbiology and Brewing Science. He said the university is now equipped with a wine and hops analytical lab and they also have a pilot scale brew house that they will be using to teach students who are interested in brewing technology. He said in the last year, interest in brewing and malting has increased significantly.
O’Keefe noted that in many cases, funding is the limiting factor when it comes to expanding the course of study, research and other aspects of higher education. Currently, only four courses are being taught in this course of study. They are Brewing Science, Principles of Sensory Science, Wines & Vines and Applied Malting and Brewing Science. Other classes will come online as students enroll in the new classes. New faculty will be helpful in making those available.
He said that Virginia Tech has purchased new malting equipment that will be used to help Virginia brewers and malters achieve their goals for quality and flavor research, once the system is operational. “We would like to be able to use this for small batches for looking at the characteristics of those particular malts,” he said.
For more information on mid-Atlantic malt and barley production contact the Virginia Grain Producers Association at www.virginiagrains.com or Loudoun Economic Development at 703-777-0426 or visit www.biz.loudoun.gov.
Glasses of Grain Roundtable addresses the need for local malts
by Jon M. Casey