“We wanted to do something to propel the industry forward,” explains Charlie Bredo, cofounder and president of Troubled Monk brewery. “Alberta is very proud of its barley, but we don’t do enough to pump up our own tires.”
Troubled Monk is located in Red Deer, Alberta, a city of only 100,000 people in the heart of Canada’s barley belt. In 2016, Troubled Monk won a medal at the World Beer Cup for its malt-forward Open Road American Brown Ale, so they know a thing or two about showcasing malt through beer.
“People understand how terroir affects wine, hops, and even coffee, but how terroir affects barley hasn’t really been explored,” says Bredo of the motivation behind Troubled Monk’s “Battle of Alberta Barley” project, which involved brewing the same beer three times, each with the same type of barley, but grown in three different regions of Alberta.
Troubled Monk contacted Rahr Malting, their primary malt supplier, to see how this could be done. Normally, Rahr would malt barley blended from the hundreds of farmers with which it works to create consistency—something that breweries usually cherish. For this project, though, Rahr went through more than 2,500 individual batches of barley looking for three that were as identical as possible by objective measures.
The three that were eventually selected were of the same barley variety (Copeland) and had nearly identical levels of protein, alpha amylase, free amino nitrogen (FAN), and deoxynivalenol (DON). Such similar batches of barley were selected so that any resulting differences in the beer could be attributed solely to the terroir, the three batches having come from northern, central, and southern Alberta.
“In wine, when you talk about terroir, you are typically talking about soil types,” explains Bob Sutton, a vice president at Rahr. “But not for barley. The soil has to be the same because barley grows best in black loam soil. What is interesting about this project is that the differences in barley terroir come from differences in climate.” “I could see differences among the [batches of] barley right away,” says Garret Haynes, head brewer at Troubled Monk, “though there weren’t a lot of sensory differences from smelling and chewing the barley.” Sutton explains, “The outer husk of barley is cellulose, so it darkens with rain, just like if you spill water on paper. Barley grown in wetter climates will be darker from this staining.”
The three batches of barley were sent to Red Shed Malting, a local micro-maltster, for malting, since Rahr’s Alberta facility is far too large to make the small batches of malt needed for the project.
“Once we got our hands on the barley, we wanted to treat the batches of barley as consistently as possible,” says Matt Hamill, maltster at Red Shed. The malting process plays an enormous role in the flavor of beer, and a maltster would normally manage the malting process to accommodate differences in barley, but for this project, Red Shed was careful to use the same steeping cycle for all three batches of barley.
The finished batches of malt were then sent to Troubled Monk. Haynes observed that the malt had retained the color differences he had noticed in the barley, “and now we could pick up sensory differences from chewing the malt and from steeped teas we made with the malt,” he says. “One was more classically bready while the other two had some grass notes.”
Haynes then brewed three versions of Troubled Monk’s flagship Golden Gaetz Golden Ale with the three batches of malt. Where the regular recipe for Golden Gaetz calls for a small amount of Carapils malt, to honor the integrity of this terroir project, Haynes replaced the Carapils malt with raw unmalted barley of the same batch used to the make each beer.
The beers were sold as a 6-pack, with two cans of each of the three beers.
At the consumer level, people noted differences, though they were subtle. Despite this subtlety, several batches of each of the three beers were made, and both Bredo and Haynes could consistently tell them apart, so differences were certainly present.
To the knowledge of Troubled Monk, Rahr, and Red Shed, this is the first time a barley experiment of this type has ever been conducted. “I’m hoping this gets the conversation started on terroir in barley,” says Bredo. Red Shed’s Hamill agrees. “It was great to see that there were qualitative differences and that everyone had a different favorite,” he says. “This experiment expands interest in differences in base malt, and we’ve gotten good feedback.”
While hops have been in the beer spotlight for a number of years, many in the beer industry predict that craft malt is the future. As brewers seek to differentiate themselves and connect drinkers to a sense of place, there is a growing interest in differences in barley variety and terroir.
“Unlike hops or even wine grapes, which aren’t really processed, barley has to be malted, so the maltster has a huge impact on the final flavor of the malt,” says Rahr’s Sutton. “Plus, while hops, grapes, and even coffee grow in the same place on the same plant every year, barley farmers have to rotate their crops, planting barley on different parts of their land each year.”
All of the extra variables at play in malt make the subject extra interesting, but it also makes it unlikely that there will ever be vintage-dated beers based on barley since there are too many things in motion. Also, since lighter-bodied beers, where base malt shines, are generally intended to be consumed fresh, vertical tastings of vintages becomes difficult. Differences from beer staling would outweigh differences in terroir.
Despite these obstacles, there is enthusiasm among all the parties involved. Sutton observes that “there’s an opportunity [for brewers to vary their] beer from year to year and tell a good story.” Hamill, on behalf of micro-maltsters observes, “If there’s a difference in terroir in barley, it’s an advantage for [small maltsters], so it was great to see that there were qualitative differences in the malt and beer.” Troubled Monk’s Haynes has similar hopes: “I hope this creates interest in barley so people can feel more connected to where their beer comes from.”
Try This at Home?
This project was logistically difficult even for the commercial entities involved. It will be difficult for interested homebrewers to explore barley terroir on their own, unless they know some farmers from whom they can get raw barley and then malt it at home. It will be nearly impossible for homebrewers to get batches of barley with identical objective measurements as Rahr did for this project, but even so, such a homebrewing experiment could yield more varied results, which might be just as interesting.
Ultimately, Troubled Monk’s purpose in undertaking the barley-terroir project was to shed light on the beauty of barley and to start a conversation with respect to barley similar to what has already been going on with hops for years. While this project may have raised more questions than it answered, that was sort of the point. Despite being the foundation of beer, barley remains a largely unexplored area for small brewers.