by Courtney Llewellyn

At the recent MI Ag Ideas to Grow With virtual experience, one sprouting idea was about growing barley and rye for the brewing and distilling industries. Craft breweries and distilleries are still popular for those involved in the local foods movement – Michigan is ranked fifth nationally for the number of breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs in-state – and they need locally-sourced supplies to meet demand.

There’s a lot of opportunity for small grain production in Michigan when it comes to malt grain brewing and distilling. There are 302 breweries creating about 900,000 barrels of production annually (using 31,000 tons of malt) – resulting in a $2.6 million economic impact in 2019. And while the craft spirit industry isn’t quite as robust, it’s growing rapidly (there are currently 53 distilleries).

“But before you commit to growing, find a committed buyer,” said Ryan Hamilton, who is part of the Michigan State University Extension team and barley researcher at the Kellogg Biological Station (KBS). You have to find the variety of grain the buyer wants (but be warned that seed availability may be limited). You’ll also need a written production/purchase contract, and consider the grain quality specifications, delivery logistics, storage time and extra equipment/consumables needed to accommodate a buyer when contracting.

At the KBS, the 2020 cereal rye trials averaged 71 bushels/acre (growing four hybrid varieties and some non-hybrid). About 2.5 gallons of pure distillate per bushel can be extracted from rye, according to Hamilton. The majority of grains used in distilling are not malted, so there’s very little post-harvest processing – which is good news, since there are only 10 Michigan malthouses. They have varying production capacities (but average less than 100 tons of malt per year). Hamilton said most maltsters grow some, if not most, of the grain they malt, so there’s no reliable “spot” market (which reinforces need for contracts and written agreements).

There are grain quality targets for growers when it comes to malting barley, wheat and rye. With all three, you want less than 13.5% moisture, although 12% is preferred in Michigan. You also want less than 12% crude protein in barley (10% – 11% preferred). In rye, protein goals may be specified by the buyer. “It’s tricky getting the perfect malting barley,” Hamilton said, “but things like moisture, protein, vomitoxin and pre-harvest sprout can be mitigated pretty predictably through proper management.”

Ideally, grain must be dry enough for long-term storage and/or milling. High protein in grains means low starch, which means low extract/spirit yield (which is why you want low protein). You also want an RVA (rapid visco analysis to detect and measure pre-germination) of 120 or higher for barley.

Brook Wilke, KBS farm manager, said farmers can meet these quality targets by choosing the right variety (considering what the buyer wants, winter vs. spring varieties and the genetic characteristics of varieties) and then managing the crop for quality first and yield second.

Malsters and brewers are accustomed to spring barley in the Upper Midwest and Canada, and it can be grown anywhere in Michigan. Wilke said winter barley is superior agronomically, though, because it has higher yields, it’s easier to achieve target grain protein, weed, pest and disease management is easier and it’s harvested later (until late June in southern Michigan). It is, however, less winter-hardy than other cereals and it’s not something all malsters and brewers are familiar with.

“Minor differences can make a big difference for these operations,” Wilke said. That’s why they’re doing the variety trials at KBS. Check out their results on yield, agronomic characteristics and quality data here.

With their cereal rye trials, the priority is the distilling industry, but the crop can also be used for food, feed and cover crops. (Cereal rye intended for distilling has two primary quality metrics: spirit yield and flavor.)

“If you can plant in March, go do it,” Wilke said. Tillage and no-till systems both work, but he suggested you start with a weed-free field. Plant just one inch deep, and plant 1 million to 1.4 million seeds/acre (fewer earlier in the season, more later). For winter barley, plant between mid-September and late October.

When it comes time to harvest, know that barley can mature rapidly. Maturity can generally be determined by the heads moving from upright to hanging straight down. You need to harvest as soon as possible after it reaches maturity to avoid pre-harvest sprout. For storage, you want something dry (less than 13.5% moisture) with low temperature systems (less than 100º F). You’ll also want to send samples to the lab soon after harvest so you can move to market your goods as soon as possible to avoid declines in quality during storage.

What are the benefits of growing cereals for fermented beverages? There’s potential for a higher profit – but also increased market risk. Early harvest of winter barley also allows for double cropping of soybeans, dry beans or forages.

“If you change your mind, you can justify your planting as a cover crop – that makes it low risk,” Wilke said.