Managing malt quality in a difficult year

by Courtney Llewellyn

An overarching theme of the recent Virtual Empire State Barley and Malt Summit was that 2021 was not a great year for those growing these grains so important to the brewing industry. Still, growers and maltsters powered through, and Harmonie Bettenhausen, director of the Hartwick College Center for Craft Food and Beverage, talked about managing malt quality in a difficult year.

“We’re almost trying to redefine what craft really means and how barley fits into that,” Bettenhausen said. “We’re talking about seasonal variations, about terroir. The climate situation is going to keep throwing curveballs at us, and we need to be more thoughtful about it.”

She reviewed the barley varieties currently being grown in New York State (Conlon, Esma, Excelsior Gold, Newdale and Quest, all spring plantings, and Endeavor, KWS Scala and LCS Violetta, winter plantings). “When you choose a variety, you’re making a real investment into your future,” Bettenhausen said. “Most barley producers in our region grow for malt, so the most important specs are lower grain protein, plumpness and low DON [deoxynivalenol, a mycotoxin].”

As many growers are well aware, summer 2021 produced 150% to 200% more rain than average in many places in New York. That meant that grain came in moist in many places too. Bettenhausen said this resulted in friability issues when it came time for drying, although she noted that a lot of people took the air drying route to control this problem – and it saved them a lot of energy.

New York had several DON outliers with the high moisture this summer, especially the Newdale variety, but Conlon, Excelsior Gold and Quest had issues too. Bettenhausen said the DON issue is not necessarily variety-dependent, but it was definitely hard to control in the Empire State this past year. Protein, despite adverse conditions, was “pretty much in range,” she added.

Another issue with all the precipitation? Pre-harvest sprout damage (when the grain continues to grow, which no variety could really escape it this past summer). Bettenhausen noted Endeavor, Excelsior Gold, Esma, Quest and Conlon had moderate to severe cases of this; Scala and Violetta did better.

“What to do about pre-harvest sprout? Contract with a few different farms – don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” she told maltsters. “Conversations with producers are key. PHS is hard to manage in the malthouse.”

Despite the drenching dilemma this past year presented, Bettenhausen told growers not to despair. “Despite a tough year, we have a great ability to adapt,” she said. “Communicate – learn what other people have done and what has succeeded. New York State is a really unique microcosm, and we’ve built up into a great part of the industry.”

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