Harry Harlan, an adventurous traveler and champion of plant diversity, amassed more than 5,000 barley varieties from around the world by 1950. His collection of heirloom plants from wherever barley would have been grown—including Ethiopia, where it first evolved—laid the foundation for the United States Department of Agriculture breeding program. That library might be full of potential flavors that craft maltsters could pass along to brewers, as juicy as heirloom tomatoes or as mouth-filling as heirloom corns craft distillers have discovered. So why aren’t more farmers and maltsters digging into that treasure chest? Because tomatoes and malt are not only different from each other, but different in important ways.
Good flavor is enough to make a tomato “good,” but there’s more to malt than flavor. “Malt is a functional ingredient,” says Aaron MacLeod, director at Hartwick College Center for Craft Food and Beverage in New York. “We need it to do a lot. Brewers expect a lot.”
The Brewers Association addressed what craft brewers want, in general, with a report that outlined what is needed to produce the all-malt beers that make up most of their portfolios:
- Distinctive flavors and aromas
- Lower free amino nitrogen (FAN)
- Lower total protein
- Lower diastatic power (DP)
- Lower Kolbach Index (ratio of soluble protein to total protein, or S/T)
The committee that wrote the report put flavor at the top list, while acknowledging that many brewers expressed concerns that after decades of breeding American-grown barley has become flavor neutral or lacked distinctiveness. For more than one hundred years plant breeders placed their emphasis elsewhere, on creating varieties with better agronomic or brewing characteristics.
Heirloom varieties may bring the baggage of the past with them, yielding less in the field and being more susceptible to disease, with extract efficiency often lower than brewers will accept and total protein higher than they want. “The bar for a high-quality malt was much different at the beginning of the twentieth century,” says MacLeod. Harlan collected grain for thirty-five years in order to raise that bar. In Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse, author John Mallett calls him “the Indiana Jones of barley,” and he inspired Sprowt Lab Founders Christopher Abbott and Mark Emmons to form The Harlan Society, which is two years into a project that would identify desirable heirloom varieties and perhaps help develop more regionally adapted varieties.
It’s not easy growing local
Sourcing grain locally is central to the Craft Maltsters Guild’s mission, which specifies that at least 50 percent of grains malted be grown within a 500-mile radius of a member’s malthouse. Caleb Michalke estimates that Sugar Creek Malt Co. in Indiana buys 80 percent from within 200 miles in Lebanon, although that includes farms in five states.
“You have to have quality as the first priority,” Michalke says, and that meant reaching out to more farmers. As Sugar Creek, which was one of only a dozen craft maltsters when it began operations in 2015, has expanded, finding quality barley has been harder. “That’s something craft will struggle with, consistency from year to year,” he says. Last year he rejected none of the barley farmers offered, but this year he turned done much of it.
Finding varieties that grow well in the Midwest has not been easy. “The first year and a half we did not pick well,” he says. For instance, Full Pint—a variety developed by Oregon State University—has thrived in Oregon, but not west of the Mississippi where it rains more often, resulting in problems with pre-harvest sprouting. Instead, farmers have found more success using German varieties than those developed for the Northwest and Canada.
The Brewers Association report points out there is no consensus about the origins of flavor, “whether genetic or arising during malting or kilning or from any combination of factors.” Moreland echoes that, explaining that he has seen no peer-based research that links variety specifically to flavor. “I’m a scientist. I want proof,” he says.
He has witnessed the growth in local malting close-up. When malthouses including Valley Malt in Massachusetts and Riverbend in North Carolina formed the Craft Maltsters Guild in 2012, there was not a certified quality-testing laboratory serving small-scale maltsters. Hartwick began testing in January 2015 and now has seventy-five clients.
Interest from craft brewers, he says, has “opened up a new era of research in grains and malting. There hadn’t been innovation in malting for years. It had followed brewing.” Michalke figures that 95 percent of flavor comes from the malthouse. Some of his customers are intrigued with using heirloom varieties but only if they offer the same value. “If they are going to pay more, they want good efficiency, not high beta glucans. They are interested in flavor, and they are interested in something that will work for them in their system,” he says.
A three-year plan
Sugar Creek hasn’t given up on growing heirloom malts, and Moreland sees a place for them as a specialty product. The Harlan Society would like to increase their options. Sprowt Labs recruited fifteen “citizen scientist homebrewers” for the project, the first year providing them with small samples of grain, mostly barley, to plant, grow, harvest, and send back. The second year the volunteers planted second-year crops on expanded plots as well as starting additional year-one crops. The harvest for year two finished in late summer and included sixty-seven barley varieties and thirty-one other grains.
The long-term goal is to harvest enough barley to malt and evaluate properly. “Our end game isn’t to claim these heritage grains as our own; our business is our malting equipment,” Abbott wrote at the Sprowt website (sprowtlabs.com). “The seed will be available for anyone to grow and malt once we’ve built up the seed stock for these varieties.”
He expects some of the varieties to be desirable on their own, but emphasizes the society was formed to promote diversity rather than protest a century of breeding. “There are several doors, and one of those is lots of homebrewers being part of a big experiment,” he says. He sees compelling reasons beyond flavor to pursue the project—including facilitating more connections between local farmers and brewers.
Sprowt makes what the partners are calling a “personal malthouse.” The version on display at Homebrew Con in Minneapolis last June can produce thirty-five pounds of malt at a time. It consists of a component box and a cylindroconical vessel (which also can be used later for fermentation). The box houses climate-control equipment to maintain ideal temperature and moisture conditions within the vessel. The equipment may also be used to kiln hops.
Sprowt is marketing the system to individual homebrewers and homebrewing groups, to academic institutions doing research, to craft malthouses to use as a pilot system, and to nano breweries. It is sized to produce enough malt for half-barrel batches of beer, perhaps made with a unique grain such as buckwheat or with heritage malt. They also plan to offer a smaller, less expensive system.
Barley is not the only heirloom grain of interest to brewers, and two different varieties of rye from Riverbend Malt suggest that sometimes flavor differences may be variety driven. Carolina Rye is, in fact, a variety called Wrens Abruzzi, which has been grown in the South for hundreds of years and has roots that go back to Italy. Sea Shore Black Rye originated in South America. The former tastes of dry peppercorn, the latter is more pungent with bready/earthy flavors. “We malt the two in the same fashion,” says Cofounder Brent Manning. “Every difference must come from the variety.”
Riverbend has produced and still produces primarily 6-row barley malt because that’s what local farmers can grow. They released a 2-row barley malt for the first time this year, calling it Southern Select.
“Working closely with our farming partners, we are now able to source locally grown, high-quality 2-row barley from which we are able to make spectacular malt,” Manning says. “It’s not a single origin, single variety malt. We’re sort of driving with that.”
Southern Select is composed of multiple varieties grown in multiple states—chosen, of course, because of the way they grow in the field and work in the brewhouse.
In Colorado, TRVE Brewing and Troubadour Maltings launched what they call the Sown Beer Project to connect brewers and suppliers, quickly finding brewers and suppliers interested in joining. “How does it make sense, when you are in a barley- growing region, to ship barley halfway around the world?” asks TRVE Head Brewer Zach Coleman. “Breweries and suppliers (working together) is what interests me. It’s what a lot of brewers I know think about. The farmers are excited to work with us. We can pay them real money. It’s a partnership.”
Although he’s focused on the importance of local ingredients and a taste of place that comes with them, he recognizes there are other considerations. “Two hands,” he says. “The quality has to be hand in hand.” He’s talked with Troubadour about trying heirloom varieties, and “for them, it comes down to having a barley variety that’s workable for brewers.”
Coleman recently made a beer with a purple malt Troubadour produces using barley from the Purple Egyptian Barley Project in Washington state. The wort appeared purple coming out of the boil kettle, although the beer only retained a tinge of that color in the glass. “It was really cool. The malt had a tea flavor,” he says.
The seed for that barley was originally collected in a region that was once called Abyssinia in the mountains of Ethiopia by, you guessed it, Harry Harlan.