An exemplary, distinctive beer is the desired end-product for the rapidly emerging craft brewing movement, and sourcing the highest quality raw ingredients to make that magic happen is one of the most important steps.  The roles of the farmer, maltster and brewer in the local beer food supply chain was the focus of the multidisciplinary Farmer/Brewer Conference, hosted by Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York this past weekend.

The event, billed as “an immersive experience bringing together industry experts sharing research and advances in barley, malting and brewing” did just that. Hartwick College, established in 1797, when New York farmers grew plenty of grains and hops for brewing, is now home to the Center for Craft Food and Beverage (CCFB). The CCFB is dedicated to advancing the brewing industry through scientific analysis, education and business development. CCFB Director Aaron MacLeod was joined by some of the foremost scientists involved in malting grain research from around the country, international and local experts in malting and brewing, plus maltsters, brewers and farmers from near and far. The 100 participants at this sold-out weekend event took advantage of the opportunity to network, learn, share experiences, build relationships…and drink some beer.

Key Ingredients
Without the farmer to grow high-quality grains, there is no beer. The primary raw agricultural ingredients that make up beer – malted grains and hops – are the indicators of the beer’s potential. If the ingredients are not of the highest quality, there is nothing that can be done to produce a high-quality brew.

“This whole thing starts with the farmer, of course,” Thor Oechsner,  who grows 1200 acres of certified organic grains for the flour and the malting industries, at Oechsner Farms in  Newfield, NY said. But to grow high quality grains for malting, a farmer must invest “a lot more time, a lot more management” than when growing for the commodity markets.

While malting is a complex process, and can do harm to perfectly good grains, it requires high-quality grains to be successful. Malsters can only work with grains that meet  quality specifications. Malting grains need to be free of disease and pest issues, be dried to ideal moisture levels, retain excellent germination rates and have a desired flavor profile, with no off flavors. Kernel size is important, and having clean grain is, too.

Barley is the most common malting grain. Wheat, rye, corn and other cereal grains are also malted, and the popularity of beers brewed with these alternative grains is on the rise.  The cell walls of different types of grain, and amongst varieties of grains, differ in composition of protein and starch. These differences affect the malting process.

Malting is all about the breakdown of compounds in the grain. The first step, steeping, causes the grain to sprout. Germination is the next step, where modification occurs. The modification process further opens up the seed’s starch reserves, which are needed in brewing. The drying step ends germination activity, and develops taste and color profiles through control of the temperatures and timing.

Malts play an important part in brewing, providing the enzymet to convert starch into sugar. Malts contribute flavor and impact beer qualities such as foam, haze, and dimethyl sulfide (DMS) in the beer. While barley (or other grain) flavor doesn’t equal the flavor of the malt, it is highly correlated.

The Roots of Local Beer
It looks as if wine isn’t the only beverage with “terroir.” As researchers look at barley, rye and other malting grains, a clearer picture is emerging of just what goes into the flavor of the grains. 

Flavor is all about chemical composition. While the genetics of a variety plays a role, environment does, too. Many aspects of the growing environment appear to play a role, including: climate; plant microbiome; nutrients; and soil type.

Beer tasting at the Farmer/Brewer Conference Image courtesy of David B. Lubell, Media Relations Manager - Hartwick College

Beer tasting at the Farmer/Brewer Conference
Image courtesy of David B. Lubell, Media Relations Manager – Hartwick College

“We’re just now finding out that environment has an impact on flavor,” Dustin Herb, of Oregon State University’s Barley Project said.

Things like nitrogen levels in the field can impact protein levels in the grain. Beta glucans, which are important in malting, may be impacted by environment and growing practices, Herb said.

Genotype, too, plays a significant role. Recent research has found that aroma compounds can be segregated by barley genotype.

Upcoming research will include the Barley Terroir Project, to determine how much of barley flavor is related to genotype, environment, or both. Another study involving organic versus conventional production will  allow researchers to further assess “how the flavor changes based on management effects,” he said.

The ultimate beer characteristics, it seems, start right on the farm. As more research is completed analyzing malting grain chemical characteristics, and how they are developed,  the potential for distinctive beers, brewed with malt produced from grains with a specific terroir, will emphasize the role the farmer really does play in bringing beer to the table.

Craft Beverage Logistics
The ulitmate success of the craft brewing industry starts with the local farmer. Oechsner emphasized the importance of beginning at the farm,  to educate farmers to the needs of the industry, and the industry to the needs of the farmer.  The selection of grain variety, management practices and  the crop’s ultimate profitability will determine how – or if- the industry can continue to grow.

Growing malting grains for the craft brewing industry offers farmers some unique opportunities. Finding the right grain varieties for the farmers, as well as the maltster and brewer; determining the proper agronomics for high-quality grains growing; and establishing the best harvesting, handling and storage practices are some issues which require attention, however. Infrastructure, too, needs to be developed if the local “grain to glass” model of craft beverage production can grow.

Growing the crops which fuel the rapidly emerging local craft beverage market offers farmers multiple opportunities for diversification. It’s the chance to become a part of the redevelopment of a local or regional supply chain, running directly from the farm to the local watering hole.