Blossoming craft brewery industry eyes malt barleys

Managing Editor

AMELIA, Va. (May 30, 2017) — Much of the discussion during the recent Virginia Small Grains Field Day centered around growing malting grains to serve the burgeoning craft brewing industry in the state on the East Coast.
In detailing test plot performance of popular malting barleys, Dr. Wade Thomason, Virginia Tech Extension grains specialist, said two varieties, Violetta and Flavia, have been surpassing varieties commonly grown in Idaho and Montana in yield for this region and the newest lines in development in Virginia Tech’s small grains breeding program have shown to outperform them all in early trials.
Thomason said with the university’s breeding program working on malting lines from more than a decade, the genetics for varieties suited for the Mid-Atlantic climate are promising.
What’s needed now is a more distinct and precise management schedule to manage pests and disease and achieve the quality requirements malters and brewers put on the grain.
Unlike commodity barley, yield and test weight aren’t always the main factors in growing malting barley and managing the crop takes a much different mindset.
“They’ll pay for quality over yield,” he said.
Protein level is a key selling point in malting grain quality, Thomason said.
“We don’t want it too low, we don’t want it too high,” he told the large crowd mixed with farmers, malters, brewers and ag company representatives gathered at the Whittington family’s Featherstone Farm.” There are complications that come up in both scenarios.”
Thomason said the amount of nitrogen applied can affect protein levels so part of his research is focused on different application rates and timing to maximize yield and hit protein targets.
Another factor in when and how much nitrogen to apply is lodging which can severely impact quality when plants and grain heads are matted down trapping moisture, a prime situation for disease to flourish.
Thomason recommend using seed treatment for malting varieties.
It has helped maintain quality in the trials, guarding against problems like smut and barley stripe, and promoting stand uniformity to help gain an average of five to six bushels in yield.
On the malting side, Matt Musial, regional manager of Proximity Malt, updated the crowd on progress at the company’s new malting facility in Laurel, Del.
After purchasing the former Laurel Grain terminal in 2015, Musial said Proximity Malt has added new storage bins, a state-of-the art roaster and rehabilitated existing buildings to utilize about 70 separate storage bins for producing a variety of specialty malts to market to brewers.
He said he expects the facility to be operational in late summer.
Musial said the goal with the Laurel site is to shorten the distance and cost from grower to market.
Malting barely production has further centralized in Montana and Idaho in recent years, about 1,900 miles from the huge East Coast markets.
“That’s a big reason why we are where we are,” Musial said, adding another facility in Monte Vista, Colo., is slightly closer to starting malt production. “We are taking advantage of locally grown crops and expertise to shorten supply chain routes and be able to pass that on to growers and brewers and really customers in the craft beer market.”
Musial said he has about 2,000 acres of Violetta barley contracted with local growers this year and will be seeking contracts for the 2018 growing year this summer.
He said the Laurel site has capacity to use about 1.2 million bushel a year which roughly translates to about 16,000 acres at an average yield of 80 bushels per acre.
He said they are prepared to pay a premium for malting barley over it’s commodity counterpart but, as Thomason also said, they face tighter quality specifications from discerning brewers.
Musial said they’re looking for grain with bright kernels, low vomitoxin levels and germination levels at 95 percent or higher.  
“We are committed to making it sustainably,” Musial said. “That means the grower gets a good price and the brewer gets a good product.”