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Bringing up barley

An initial foundation for the future of regional craft malting was laid on Friday in Fairfield.

Some 60 farmers, researchers, brewers and maltsters gathered for a “Know Barley, Know Beer” field day organized by Washington State University, which is working on new barley varieties geared to the needs of smaller craft brewers.

Just as new hop varieties are getting attention for contributing distinctive flavors to beer, “that’s what we hope to do with barley,” said WSU barley breeder Kevin Murphy (pictured above).

 Added Joel Williamson of LINC Foods, which is starting a malting operation in Spokane: “Craft brewers are trying to set themselves apart from the mainstream, macro beers. This is another way to do that.”

Mass-market brewers use a lot of less expensive “adjuncts” like rice and corn to make their beers, so they need malted barley with high levels of protein and enzymes to convert starches in the grains to sugars for fermentation. That’s what is typically available on the market today.

But that type of malt can actually create overkill for craft brewers, who typically use barley exclusively in their beers, leading to inconsistent conversions and reduced stability.

Craft brewers also are looking for more flavor from their malts, Murphy said. “There’s a huge difference in barley flavors (among different varieties),” he said. “That’s where we can really make major gains, I think.”

Murphy said WSU hasn’t released a new malting barley variety for 25 years or more – mainly because of difficulty meeting the specific needs of the big brewers – and had stopped doing research in that area until his arrival four years ago, due to funding issues.

And barley acreage in the region has dropped from 1 million in the early 1980s to just over 100,000 now, he said. That’s largely because of lower prices for feed barley, which makes up 90 percent of what’s grown in Washington, and issues working the grain into crop rotations.

With new research into more lucrative barley varieties for both malting and food use, Murphy said, “We want to give different options to growers and bring barley back into the rotation a little more than it has been.”

Demand for malting barley is climbing thanks to the craft brewing boom. While craft brewers had an 11 percent market share nationally last year, they used 25 percent of the malt sold, Murphy said. That’s expected to top 30 percent this year.

And smaller craft maltsters are sprouting to create unique malts from locally grown grains, including LINC – which hopes to open its operation by year’s end – and Mainstem Malt in Walla Walla, which is shooting for a 2017 launch.

Flavor quality and local appeal are the keys, said Mainstem’s Phil Neumann. “If the craft malting industry can nail those two factors, it will be 90 percent successful,” he said.

While cost will be an issue, brewers are increasingly interested. Those in attendance Friday included Black Label, English Setter, Orlison, Steam Plant, Wallace and Fairfield’s own Zythum, which hosted the gathering.

“This is the kind of relationship we really wanted to foster when we came out here and saw the agricultural side of all this,” said Zythum’s Shawn Carney.

Added Black Label’s Dan Dvorak: “We could get malt from a farmer, and give him the spent grain (from brewing) back to him to feed his animals. It’s a continual cycle.”