Growing Barley for Beer: The New York Story

New York’s Farm Brewery license will require farm breweries to source 60 percent of their hops and all other ingredients, by weight, from New York growers by January 2019. Currently, the law requires 20 percent to be grown in-state. There are approximately 188 farm brewery licenses held in New York State at the present time. With the demand for locally-grown malting barley expected to outpace the acreage now under cultivation, research and education to assist the farming community in meeting the anticipated demand is one critical key component to the success of the re-emergence of locally-grown malting grains.

According to data released by Cornell Cooperative Extension Harvest New York in the December 2017 report “New York State Brewery Supply Chain Analysis,” farm breweries in the state are projected to grow production by more than 30,000 barrels over the six-year period. And by the end of 2023, the farm brewery license will require that 90 percent of hops and 90 percent of all other ingredients must be grown in the state.

To meet this demand, the projected amount of malting barley acres needed by survey responders to meet 2024 requirements is 1,951. This figure, however, is based on survey responses from a mere 35 of the state’s farm breweries. With other farm breweries potentially expanding their production of brew at a similar rate, and other type of brewery license holders also seeking local grains, the malting barley acreage — which currently is assessed at 3,000 acres — is undoubtedly going to have to be expanded.

But not all of the malting grain acreage is going to meet the specifications needed by maltsters. In 2014, less than 50 percent of New York’s malting barley crop met the standards for malting. In 2017, despite a very wet spring and July, over 70 percent of the malting barley grown in the state met the malting quality standards. During 2016, a drought year, grains thrived without the common disease concerns, which are most prevalent in moist conditions.

Variety trials and breeding

Dr. Mark Sorrels, Cornell University Plant Breeder, has been conducting trials of malting both spring and winter malting barley. Of the winter varieties, Scala has shown good results, as has the European variety, Flavia. Spring varieties with good results include Synergy and Tinka.

Dan Sweeney, Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is working under Dr. Sorrels to develop a “high intensity breeding program” with the goal of producing regionally-adapted malting barley varieties within three or four years, instead of the typical 10 years. The program is known as “Born, Bred and Brewed in New York” and is focusing on genetic and environmental influences on malting barley cultivation across all regions of the state, according to Sweeney.

Phenotypes will be scored on barley heading date, height, disease resistance, pre-harvest sprouting, protein levels and fusarium head blight resistance. Beginning first with 1,300 varieties and then selecting 250 of the most promising for regional trials, eventually a half dozen varieties will be selected for breeding.

“We can predict how a plant will perform…to varying degrees” using genomic selection, Sweeney explained. “We can have two cycles of selection in the same time it takes to have one” using traditional plant breeding.

During 2018, there will be 60 or more “Born, Bred and Brewed” lines of barley grown in six locations throughout the state. Data will be collected on performance. Brewers who wish to experiment with the trial varieties are needed, Sweeney said.

Grain quality

Barley isn’t the only grain in demand by craft beverage makers. Wheat and rye are also desired for malting purposes. But no matter the grain, the quality concerns remain the same: mycotoxins and mold; kernel plumpness and uniformity; pre-harvest sprouting and germination; and protein content.

Aaron Macleod, director for The Hartwick College Center for Craft Food and Beverage (CCFB) in Oneonta, has been testing the quality of malting grains in the region. Over 60 samples from New York, Pennsylvania, Maine and Vermont were tested in 2017, a 50 percent increase from 2016.

“In the Northeast, the primary issues we see which have a negative impact on quality is sprout damage. This is due to the wetter growing conditions,” Macleod said. “Most of the North American spring two rowed malting barley varieties that are readily available don’t have much dormancy, since they were developed for the dryer growing areas in the mid-west and Western Canada.”

Farmers in the Northeast also have to cope with wet conditions at harvest, which can cause pre-harvest sprouting, rendering the grain useless to maltsters. Grain harvested in wet conditions also doesn’t store well. Even when harvest conditions are optimal, careful kernel handling, immediate drying to 12 percent moisture levels, prevention of contamination of the grain by pests and the need to keep each variety of malting barley stored separately remain challenges.

“Timing of harvest is one of the keys to preventing sprout damage. Early harvesting at higher moisture levels can prevent the grain from getting rained on,” Macleod said. “To do this, farmers have to have the necessary grain drying equipment. And barley has to be dried using low heat to preserve the germination”

Resources and support

Stefan Fleming, Empire State Development, Craft Beverages, said that the New York State government is committed to the Farm Brewery License and views locally grown ingredients for locally brewed beer to be a key component leading the economic revival of communities throughout the state. An economic impact study of the New York craft beverage industry is currently underway.

The goal is “to encourage more growers to put more seed in the ground” and grow the grains needed by maltsters and brewers, Fleming said. “More research and more education are needed,” both to assist farmers, maltsters and brewers in the handling and use of malting grains and to educate the public about the positive impacts of New York’s craft beverage supply chain.

Branding tools to promote New York beverages, such as the Taste NY campaign, include events and programs devoted specifically to craft beverages. Resources for farmers and craft beverage producers, through New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, are available, and will remain an important tool. Low-cost agribusiness loans are also available, Fleming said.

An emphasis on improving the distribution and logistics of the supply chain from farm to brewery is also a focus as the industry develops. A New York Grown and Certified label for hops and barley is being developed as well.

The recent Empire State Barley and Malt Summit brought together growers, maltsters, brewers, researchers and marketers to work cohesively to build and promote a robust malting barley economy in the state. By bringing together all the facets of the craft beer community, to discuss needs, challenges, successes, failures, hopes and dreams, the craft beer boom can continue to grow.

 

Article by Tamara Scully, Wine & Craft Beverage News

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