A Saskatchewan maltster heads to the barley field to talk protein levels with the province’s craft brewers
Balancing yield and protein content in malting barley can be a tricky exercise.
It can also be a potentially costly exercise, especially if growers place too much emphasis on maximizing yield and apply too much nitrogen.
That was one of the topics discussed at an Aug. 20 field event hosted by Maker’s Malt, a Saskatchewan-based boutique maltster that caters to the craft-brewing industry.
Matt Enns, a barley grower, entrepreneur and partner in Maker’s Malt, said the relationship between nitrogen and protein is an important consideration for all malt barley producers.
Excessive nitrogen levels will produce a heavy crop, but the grain from that crop might exceed the protein threshold that maltsters typically like to stay below.
Targeted nitrogen levels that produce lower yields and more acceptable protein levels can reduce financial risks that come with producing malt barley.
Agronomy companies that specialize in malt barley production are learning more about the relationship between nitrogen, protein and yield, said Enns.
Customized malt barley recipes that aim at a specific protein target can be tailored to specific regions of the Prairies and to individual fields, based on factors that include residual soil nitrogen levels, projected rainfall amounts and varietal selection.
At the field day near Rosthern, Sask., Enns said achieving the optimal protein level can be a bit like aiming at a moving target.
Large maltsters routinely blend high protein malt barley with lower protein grain to reach their preferred specs.
But the protein specs in any given malt house can change from year to year, depending on environmental conditions and the availability of high quality grain.
“The big maltsters are going to have to take what’s available in any given season,” Enns said.
“They’re still going to source (a certain percentage) of the malt barley that’s seeded in any given year and they’re going to select the best barley that they can find. But in any given season, the best barley that they can find might have higher protein specs than they want.”
Enns said operating a boutique malt house gives him more incentive to tailor his barley production to the needs of his brewer customers.
The Enns family, which has been producing malt barley for decades, has lowered the protein targets on some of its production.
Protein levels as low as 11.5 can be achieved, using the right production recipe.
“At 11.5 percent, that would be a really good number that would work for all possible uses,” Enns said.
“It would move through the malt house smoothly, it would hydrate well and it would be a nice neutral protein level that allows brewers to do whatever they want, in terms of brewing.”
For brewers who want a more colourful and flavourful beer, a slightly higher protein level would be preferable.
“As a boutique malt house, that’s something that we really try to focus on is getting a robust flavour and really punching above our weight in terms of colour and flavour,” Enns said.
Close to 50 people attended Maker’s field day and malt house tour, including representatives from craft breweries.
“I think the biggest reason we chose to do this was to connect with the people that use our malt and to get them out into the field where the barley is grown,” Enns said.
Mark Heise, owner of Regina-based craft brewer Rebellion Brewing, said learning about barley production and the malting process makes good business sense.
“We were talking earlier about how consumers want to know where their products come from and the same is true for brewers.”
“You would think that a craft brewer would know where the barley they use comes from, but you really don’t until you actually go out in the field and see it. That’s what this day was really all about.”