New Game for Grain: Malting Barley Industry Sprouts in Virginia

By: John Biscoe

    Although I grew up on a family farm, I left for college with no intention of returning to farming. Years later, after pursuing other interests, I decided to return to the farm. Once there, I succumbed to a tendency that affects many budding produce farmers - I planted almost every crop under the sun, with minimal regard to the actual likelihood of success in growing them. One of these items was hops. Once I put in a few hops bines on the farm in 2000, I became curious about the potential for crafting beer strictly from local crops. This led me to learn a bit about another of beer’s primary constituents - barley. While other small grains, such as wheat and rye, can be used for malt; barley is by far the most widely consumed.

My family has grown barley for as long as I can remember, but truthfully it was never anything I paid much attention to - just fodder for the cattle. When I got interested in malting barley, my minimal research told me we grew the “wrong barley” for malting - 6 row as opposed to 2 row, whatever that meant. (It actually refers to the number of rows of grain along the seed head.) Additionally, the barleys desired for malting tended to be Spring Barley as opposed to the Winter Barley, which is grown in Virginia. I didn’t really put any more thought into it at the time and went about my business, as did the brewing industry itself to a large degree.

For years now barley has been the ugly duckling of beer ingredients in comparison to its more glamorous counterpart hops. Perusal of any beer aisle reveals the market’s utter fixation with hops. Packaging lists variety after variety and their pinecone shape has become synonymous with craft beer. Ironically enough, hops are not even a necessary part of the brewing process. The three essential ingredients in brewing are water, yeast, and malt (barley). While beer without hops would be syrupy and lack brightness of flavor, it would (technically) be beer nonetheless. American craft brewers have been largely responsible for hops becoming the star of the show, but beer without significant malt characteristics is incomplete. While hops provide bitterness and aroma to a brew, the malt provides the enzymes and sugars needed for fermentation and gives beer its color, flavor
and mouth feel.

The Northern Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest have predominantly grown barley used for malting in the United States for years. These areas have sufficient periods of cool weather for Spring Barley growth, whereas the heat of the Mid-Atlantic summer causes grain head production to shut down. Additionally, our Virginia humidity creates issues with fungus and disease not present in arid climates.

As it turned out, however, there were folks other than myself interested in incorporating Virginia barley into the brewing process. A number of years ago, Rick Wasmund began malting barley at Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, using the malt at the distillery, as well as selling some to local brewers. With the boom in craft brewing, a number of brewers around the state have crafted beers using only local ingredients, barley included. State and local governments have also incentivized bringing malting operations to the state, which will generate even more demand for local grain.

The key factor to the development of the Virginia malt barley industry has been the development of new strains of barley through the Virginia Tech Small Grains Development Program. In 2003, Virginia Tech released Thoroughbred. In an effort to create improved feed barley, researchers crossed a traditional Mid-Atlantic Winter Barley with a European strain called Plaisant. (For those who are concerned, this was done using traditional plant breeding techniques - there are no genetically modified barleys in the marketplace.) A happy accident of this process was the discovery by Rick Wasmund that, in addition to improved yield and overall plant health, Thoroughbred possessed some characteristics that made it desirable as malting barley. Copper Fox has been malting Thoroughbred and crafting whiskey from it ever since.

To some extent, the characteristics desirable in a malting barley mirror those of feed barley - overall plant health and large consistent grains. However, there are distinct differences between the two as well. Malting barley must be low in beta-glucans, for instance - too much of it can result in a hazy brew. One of the most desirable traits in feed barley is a high crude protein content – this also is undesirable in malting barley. High germination rate is more of a concern in brewing than in feed barley, as well as malting is itself a process of sprouting the barley grains and then drying them to cease growth. For the last ten years, malting barley has become a focus of the scientists at VPI. Working in partnership with other institutions around the country, there are numerous new Spring Barleys in the pipeline with great promise
for malting.

Genetics alone will not be enough to create a thriving malt barley industry in Virginia. Malt houses are few, and far between. Farmers must buy in to the additional cost and risk involved in growing barley for malt, as well, and the challenges are substantial. A wet spell late in the grain’s development can cause complete crop loss should the grain begin sprouting in the field. Levels of fungal infestation that would be acceptable for fodder cannot be tolerated for malting, so a crop intended for malting will require spraying that can otherwise be left undone. The payoff for growing barley for malt can be high, but it is a wager that requires higher stakes than growing for fodder. Every farming season is a long-term gamble in the purest sense - the farmer wagers the cost of seed, labor, fertilizer, cultural controls, such as herbicides and fungicides, and time against the probability of eventual yield. Defeat can be snatched from the jaws of victory late in the game. Margins tend to be thin to begin with and additional inputs, such as the cost of spraying a crop to prevent fungal infection, make them even thinner. Price for a successful malting barley crop can be 5 times that of feed barley per bushel, however, so the carrot is there.

Economies of scale challenge Virginia growers of barley and hops as well. Virginia’s farms for these crops are much smaller than those farms in cooler, more arid, sections of the country are. Less than 1000 acres of Virginia’s total barley crop of over 30,000 acres are grown with malting as the intent. While there is demand among craft brewers for barley grown in the Old Dominion for some niche brews, the barley market nationally has been flooded due to bumper crops in the Northwest over recent years and reduced demand from industry behemoths Anheuser Busch and Coors. Since dried barley does not lose its germinative properties for 18 months or so, this creates a substantial backlog.

My brother Bill Biscoe and nephew William grow about 100 acres of Thoroughbred barley each year at Glenburnie Farm in Spotsylvania County. The crop goes in the ground in late September or October, depending on weather conditions, and is not harvested until mid-June of the following year. Expected yield is 80-100 bushels per acre.

When asked which qualities of Thoroughbred make it attractive to him as feed barley, Bill Biscoe replies succinctly, “Yield”. Even when growing for feed, winter barley can be a tricky crop in Virginia’s distinctly fickle climate. As I write this in early March, conditions have gone from 80 degrees and sunny to fifteen degrees and snowy in less than a week’s time. Too much cool, wet weather late in the growing process compromised last year’s crop. In their estimation, the climate is not yet right for a major turn towards malting barley from Virginia growers. The time is coming however, when through the concerted efforts of various talented individuals, Virginia will indeed have the “right barley”.