Idaho Malt Barley Field Course

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I just got back from the Idaho Malt Barley Field Short Course hosted by the Idaho Barley Commission, and I wanted to do a little write up about some of the stuff I learned. Maybe you’ll learn a little something, and I’ll probably come back and read through this once I’ve forgotten it all! I thought it was awesome, but I’m also a huge nerd so…

We visited the University of Idaho Tetonia Research Farm, and got a tour of the fields from Chris Evans, the barley breeding technician. He told us about the different varieties of barley and good farming practices of the Idaho farmers. It was interesting, and it was super cool to see different varieties of barley right next to each other. Different barley varieties actually have different yields, protein contents, heights, and malt extract percentages. So depending on what a specific brewery wants to brew, they can select a specific barley variety that fits a specific need (of course, it helps if you’re also one of the giant breweries who buys a majority of said barley…). In the fields, we could see how their heights differ, which is important for the farmer because if they get too high they tend to “lodge” (or fall over) which leads to disease, but if they are too short the barley is hard to harvest. There was an irrigated patch and a “dry farming” patch, and not all of the varieties grew better in the irrigated patch! A lot of the farmers in Idaho practice dry farming because they don’t have access to reliable irrigation, so its important to identify varieties of barley that can thrive in those conditions. In 2013, Idaho farmers grew about 26% of the total bushels of barley sold in the United States. The other large producers of barley were North Dakota (21%), Montana (20%), and Washington state (6%). At Snake River Brewing, we get our base malt (2 row pale malt) from Great Western Malting company, located in Pocatello, Idaho, which is only 2.5 hours away. We are definitely located in a great part of the country for good barley, good malt, and good snow! Its awesome to be so geographically close to where a majority of our barley is grown, because transporting barley turns out to be difficult. Barley transportation is limited by train capacity. Barley grown in North Dakota competes with the oil and gas transportation. And the barley grown in the Midwest is competes with the corn and soy that goes to the coast to travel via the sea to China. Its much more profitable for the train companies to transport oil, gas, corn, and soy! We don’t worry about train transportation though, because we get our 2-row from  Great Western Malting in trucks.

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We stopped at this barley field after the research farm. I think it was theoretically for us to see an actual barley field, but it also was just a nice place to stop, drink a beer, and chat with the other brewers in the course! The view did not suck. Although its always kind of funny to see the Tetons from the Idaho side.

In 2012, U.S. craft brewers used over 20% of the malt sold to breweries despite being only about 6% of the total beer production in the U.S. The large breweries who use adjuncts in their beer, such as alternate grains (corn, rice), and alternate sugar sources (corn syrup), need a malted barely that has a high protein content which can break down the adjuncts. However, craft breweries who don’t use adjuncts prefer malted barely with a low protein content because it produces a better more stable finished product. Based on the percentage of the malt barley craft breweries buy, and the fact that our industry is growing rapidly, it seems like the farmers and the maltsters are willing to grow and malt a barley that will better suit a craft brewers needs. (Yes, “maltster” is a word- a maker of malt. The guys from Great Western Malting Company referred to themselves as maltsters.) So this is good news!

The next day, we had about 4.5 hours of talks and discussions. That sounds like a really long time, but it flew by because of the interesting topics and the constant discussion. The attendees were mostly brewers, but there were also pathologists from USDA who study barley, representatives from the Brewers Association, scientists from the University of Idaho, and maltsters from Great Western. Here is a quick list of who spoke and what they spoke about.

  • Dr. Juliet Marshall, a pathologist from the University of Idaho, spoke about agronomics, disease and pest control, barley farming practices, and malt quality targets (which are different for the big breweries that use adjuncts and for the craft brewers who use all malt).
  • Randy Neiwirth, who secures barley from farmers for Great Western Malting Company spoke about the history of barley production and how that has changed over time.
  • Dr. Gongshe Hu, a research geneticist with the USDA, told us about his 2-row all malt breeding research. He has been collaborating with the Brewers Association on malt specifications desired by craft brewers. With that data, he has been trying to breed barley plants that meet those specific criteria. I think his work will potentially be important for the future of craft brewers, plus it was super cool to learn about the barley breeding process! (Also note, this is very different than GMO- genetically modified food. I asked Chris Evans from the Tetonia Research Farm about the possibility of GMO barley, and he said we are at least 20 years away IF it happens at all. Right now, there is no desire for it, so there isn’t even any research being done.)
  • Tevis Vance, the Great Western Malt Plant Manager, spoke about the malting process, quality control, and how they are changing their priorities to include craft brewers needs. He was very well spoken and walked us through the steps of malting- steeping, germination, and kilning. Its such a cool process!

After those awesome talks, we toured the Great Western Malting plant in Pocatello, Idaho. That was also so cool, but unfortunately they did not allow pictures! Its a huge huge huge concrete plant. There are tall round vessels where they steep the barley. The barley has about 46% moisture after the steeping process. Then that barley moves into a large flat container where it germinates. After the barley reaches about 43% moisture and germinates to the point that it starts to stick out its roots, it moves to the kilning stage. The kilning containers are also large and flat. Here the barley is heated, and the moisture is reduced from 43% to 18% and then finally down to about 4%. If you ever get the chance to visit a malting facility, I would highly recommend it. It was wild. I’m sorry I don’t have any pictures of it though! Here is some more barley…

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I had an awesome time, learned a lot, and met some interesting folks. I love science and beer, so its always fun when I can combine them! Sorry for the very long post, and hey thanks if you made it through all that! I’ve got notes and handouts from that weekend, so if anyone is interested in talking about malted barley, farming, beer, or really anything, let me know! I would love to nerd out. Cheers!


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