Barley growers, brewers gather to share info

Managing Editor

RICHMOND, Va. (Nov. 10, 2015) — As craft brewing continues to grow throughout the United States, Virginia farmers, brewers and others involved in the process continue to seek ways to serve that market.
The latest effort came last week, as the Virginia Grain Producers Association held a meeting — fittingly at a craft brewery — to get interested people in the same room, learning and sharing information.
In two panel discussions at Hardwood Craft Brewery, the focus largely centered around barley and what’s needed to overcome current challenges to consistently meet brewers’ demand and specifications.
“Our hope is that as the demand grows here, our growers can continue working with brewers, malters and distillers to deliver that market,” said Ben Rowe, spokesperson for the Virginia Grain Producers Association.
Barley purchases spiked in 2010 and 2011 to more than 2 million bushels in Virginia when the Osage Biofuel plant in Hopewell, Va., was making ethanol from the grain.
Now purchases are under 500,000 bushels annually with nearly all of it going to the animal feed market.
Craft breweries in Virginia have more than doubled in the last decade with about 100 and expansions from larger brewers such as Stone Brewing and Devil’s Backbone on the east coast make for a 300 percent increase in capacity in the region over last year.
The Brewers Association, a craft brewing trade organization, set a goal to have 20 percent of the nation’s beer market by 2020.
“They’re very much on track to hit that and their numbers track very heavy on the southeastern United States,” said Brent Manning, owner of Riverbend Malthouse in Asheville, N.C.
That growth has created strong demand for malting barley and many of the small breweries want to source the grain locally, he added.
“We’re overwhelmed by demand,” Manning said who buys malt barley from within a 500 radius of his malting location. “We’re turning people away. The market is there for sure.”
A quality malt barley can fetch quite a premium for a grower — Manning said he pays about $8-$10 per bushel for cleaned and bagged barley — but there is often heightened management requirements for meeting a malters or brewers specific needs.
And barley in Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic region, from breeding through production, has long been geared toward improving feed type varieties for agronomic traits and livestock production.
“That works best in our area because that’s what we’ve bred to work here,” said Dr. Wade Thomason, Virginia Tech Extension grains specialist.
Many barleys grown for malting are classified as two-row which have been mainly bred for drier and less humid environments than in Virginia.
The good news, Thomason said, is Virginia Tech’s breeding program led by Dr. Carl Griffey, is perhaps the strongest in the region and has been breeding varieties for malting for years.
Thoroughbred is one example, developed as a feed barley by the program but having good malting qualities along with yield stability and is used commercial for malting.
Billy Dawson, a Northern Neck farmer, said he’s grown Thoroughbred for seven years without a crop failure, but his two-row barely crops have only been successful two years out of four.
“I’m batting .500,” Dawson said. “That’s not good enough for me. I’m not playing baseball. I’m trying to make a living on the farm.”
Thomason said malt barley breeding is still a small part of the whole program but has grown significantly with 75 crosses planted for evaluation next year.
“We’ve still got quite a bit to learn and we need you all to help us with that moving forward,” he told the crowd of farmers, brewers and malters. “I feel good things are coming but not in a year. We’re talking about three or four seasons from now.”
On the brewing side, Virginia Tech recently developed an eight-course fermentation option to its food science degree and cut the ribbon on a pilot brewery and malting facility on campus to foster local research. Dr. Sean O’Keefe, professor in the school’s food science department said the pilot facility may soon be used for short-coarse brewing workshops, training, and for brewers to use in developing new products. 
Other hurdles to expanding malt barley production are storability and improved infrastructure.
“If we can’t be consistent suppliers to a market, we’re not going to be around long,” Dawson said.
Maintaining quality is a key factor in consistency, said John Bryce, technical outreach director of the Master Brewers Association of the Americas.
“Local is only a competitive advantage if you are also competitive on quality,” he said.
Bryce also said expanded marketing of the local aspect and how it benefits the community is another component that needs attention to help growth.
And strict attention to enhanced food safety requirements from field to bottle will top the list.
“Innovation is great but we can’t lose sight of food safety,” Bryce said. “The threat is never more real than it is today.”
Dawson suggested it could be good time to form a group of malt barley growers to share information, network with supplies and “make Virginia a source of malting barley.”
“I can’t grow all the barley for the malt market. I don’t want to even try,” he said.
He also called for continued support of the barley breeding program at Virginia Tech to expand the malt breeding component.
“They’re going to need inputs to ramp it up if they’re going to breed something that’s going to work in our area,” he said.
But even now Manning said he’s sold malt from Virginia-grown barley to brewers who have created award-winning beer with it.
“It is possible,” he said.