Craft beer sector gives barley sector a wake-up call

Barley varieties have catered to demands of big brewers, but demands by craft beer makers may see breeders accommodate

Craft brewers make up less than 20 percent of beer production in the United States, but they consume almost 50 percent of the malt used by the beer industry.

That makes them important to the barley industry and to barley growers, Brewers Association supply chain specialist Chris Swersey said during the Canadian Barley Symposium June 26.

“Last year was a real eye-opener for us,” said Swersey during a panel discussion about barley’s opportunities and challenges.

Recent decades have seen mainstream, bulk brewers steadily break barley’s hold on the beer-making commodity market.

Most bulk brewers use a number of cheaper “adjuncts” to provide much of their beer bases, adding only a minority portion of actual barley malt in order to maintain their products’ beer-like flavour.

But most craft brewers use and proclaim their belief in 100 percent barley malt, often printing that commitment on their beer’s labels and stating it in advertisements.

It’s created the odd situation where tiny beer makers, who were once almost invisible in barley industry discussions, are now the darlings, the true believers in a crop that has seen its popularity with farmers decrease in recent years as more lucrative crop options have become available.

Craft brewers aren’t just seen as a nice and incrementally valuable part of the barley demand base, but as vital to barley’s survival as a mainstream crop choice on the Prairies.

Mainstream brewers have worked hard to reduce their reliance on barley, but craft brewers have bonded themselves tightly to the traditional beer-making crop.

“Anywhere you see ‘craft,’ just put ‘all-malt,’ ” said Swersey.

That evolution has brought great hopes for the barley industry, which had seen steady erosion of barley demand from the already-stagnant mainstream beer industry.

Because the big brewers were relying increasingly on adjuncts, the characteristics of the malt they demanded changed to support the production of these hybrid beers.

That prompted maltsters to begin demanding different characteristics in the barley varieties they malted, which pushed barley breeders to develop varieties that would produce that sort of malt. That’s what farmers have ended up growing.

However, the new demand from craft brewers is now providing a pushback against that trend, creating demand for barley varieties with more traditional characteristics that work best in 100 percent barley bases.

A number of speakers at the conference discussed the evolution of barley variety characteristics as researchers and developers try to maintain the agronomic gains of recent years while also trying to improve the quality of malt for malt-only brewers.

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