A century ago, before prohibition, Ohio farmers were raising around 350,000 acres of barley every year. But when beer brewing abruptly ended in the state, demand for malting barley crashed. By the time prohibition ended in 1933, farmers had moved on to other crops, and the state’s barley acreage never rebounded.
For decades, breweries in Ohio have been content to ship in malted barley from other states, and even other countries such as Germany. But, the resurgence of craft breweries and the public’s increased interest in locally sourced products is creating new opportunities for barley in Ohio and neighboring states, says Victor Thorne, a founding partner of Origin Malt. “If we had malting barley and several large malting facilities 100 years ago, why can’t we today?”
Thorne’s interest in rebuilding a local barley supply chain was sparked by central Ohio distiller Ryan Lang. After researching the market potential, Lang and Thorne founded Origin Malt in 2015, and since then they’ve been quietly building a supply chain to link plant breeders, seed producers and farmers with brewers and distillers eager for local ingredients. They closed on a building site for a malthouse in Marysville earlier this year, and they plan to scale up contracted acreage to 75,000 once the facility is operating at capacity. “We have a mantra: from seed to sip,” says Thorne.
To get the business off the ground, Lang and Thorne recruited investors who are involved one way or another in the barley supply chain or an adjacent industry. They wanted equity partners who could lend advice and strategic guidance, explains Thorne, who is contributing his own experience with business startups and with food industry supply chains. Investors include dozens of farm families — some of whom are growing or plan to grow barley themselves — and others who see it as a promising investment. The company is past the equity fundraising stage and ended up raising more than the initial goal.
To identify and develop malting barley varieties well-suited for Ohio growing conditions, Origin Malt has been working with researchers at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC). The primary barley variety they’re using for the company launch is Puffin, and Land and Thorne have an exclusive license with Limagrain Cereal Seeds for North American production.
With more than 300 breweries in the state, Ohio itself has plenty of demand for malted barley, and Thorne wants to fill that demand with barley grown here. “I think we’ve visited with more than 100 brewers,” he notes. Ohio is also well-positioned to supply breweries throughout the eastern part of the country, he adds. The Brewers Association, a craft beer trade group, counts nearly 3,000 breweries within a day’s drive of central Ohio.
Lenny Kolada is one of the brewers looking for local malted barley. “I’m really excited we’re at a point now that we can actually viably produce barley in Ohio again like we did before prohibition,” he says. Kolada started in the craft brewing business in 1992 and opened Smokehouse Brewing Co. in Columbus in 1998. He recently opened a second brewery, Commonhouse Ales.
He’s hopeful that he’ll be able to switch to locally produced malt for both breweries within two years. Kolada was impressed with the porter and pale ale he made earlier this year using malt made from Puffin barley. “It has really good character without being a showoff.”
“Terroir” is not a term commonly used by craft beer enthusiasts; but, as with wines, the growing location of the ingredients influences the flavor of beers, Kolada points out. “Where it’s grown has a big impact on what the final result will be.” The flavor of the malted barley is especially noticeable in certain beers, such as German-style Kolsch brews. “It lets the malt shine,” he explains.
To scale up production of malting barley, Origin Malt began contracting with seed producers to grow barley for seed and malting tests three years ago, with 356 acres. The company has been building acreage each year and contracted with farmers to raise 7,500 acres for the 2019 harvest. For the 2020 harvest, they intend to double that acreage to 15,000. Most of those acres are in Ohio, but Whitney Thompson, who manages growing and procurement for Origin Malt, is working with growers in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania as well. Concentrating too much production in one growing area increases the risk of weather-related crop failures, she explains. “We want to make sure we’re increasing acres in multiple states in the Midwest.”
In addition to signing on growers, Origin Malt is coordinating a network of elevators that will take delivery of barley from growers and transport it on to the Marysville malting facility, once it’s in operation. Right now, most delivery points are in northwest Ohio, but the goal is to have locations throughout Ohio and neighboring states so farmers will have short hauling distances.
Growers will need to store their barley briefly after harvest to wait on quality testing, Thompson notes. Testing will be completed so the grain can be moved by Sept. 1, she explains. That way, the growers’ bin space will be available in the fall for other crops.
Malting-quality barley is lower in protein than barley used for grain. Brewers typically want protein lower than 12.5% and DON (deoxynivalenol, a vomitoxin) below 1 ppm, Thompson says. The Puffin variety tends to have lower protein levels, but agronomic practices, such as nitrogen fertilization, play a part as well. To keep DON levels down, farmers need to avoid growing barley after corn, because corn residue harbors the fusarium fungi responsible. Fungicide treatment during the growing season is also important, she adds.
Barley that doesn’t meet standards will be managed on a case-by-case basis, Thompson says. Some growers might be able to feed it to their livestock. Others might be able to use it as cover crop seed. If neither of those options work, Origin Malt will buy it and find an outlet, she explains.
To help farmers meet quality standards, Origin Malt is conducting educational meetings on best management practices, Thompson says. “We’re taking a really hands-on approach to supporting the farmer.”
One of the growers who has been working with Origin Malt from the beginning is Tom Ramsey, who farms and owns Hiser Seeds in Clarksburg, Ohio. He sees growing barley as a way to keep a fall-planted small grain in the crop rotation while maintaining profitability.
“I think there’s more profit potential with barley than raising wheat and hauling it to market,” he says. He likes having a small grain in his rotation to contribute organic matter to the soil, and also to keep a cover on soil over the winter to protect water quality.
Ramsey has been growing Puffin barley for the last four years. “It’s been an easy crop to handle,” he says. For the most part, raising malting barley is similar to raising wheat, but farmers need to make a few modifications to maintain quality standards. As a seed producer, Ramsey is accustomed to thoroughly cleaning equipment and storage space between crops, but that requirement might be new to many producers. The crop does best with well-drained ground and generally needs to follow soybeans in the rotation, rather than corn to reduce problems with fusarium head scab, he notes.
If the weather permits, Ramsey prefers to let barley dry in the field. But if wet weather is a threat, barley can be harvested starting about 15.5% moisture and air-dried in the bin to under 13.5% moisture. Heated drying will kill the seed, he explains. “That’s one big difference in malting barley — it has to be alive to malt.”
Eric Richer, an Ohio State University Extension Educator based in Fulton County, Ohio, has been working with northwest Ohio farmers to study production of winter barley. As an overwintering cereal grain, the crop offers conservation benefits, helping the soil absorb heavy spring rains and providing a manure application window in the summer, he points out. “Barley, like wheat, is a water-quality crop.”
Moving to malting barley
Malting barley might be a good fit for farmers interested in diversifying who are already comfortable handling food-grade crops, Richer says. For instance, farmers who have grown, popcorn, green beans, seed beans or seed wheat already have experience with the segregated storage and handling required to keep contaminants out of a crop.
Generally, farmers who have grown wheat can make a fairly easy transition to growing malting barley, but it is more difficult to grow than wheat because of the multiple quality characteristics involved, adds Richer. Farmers who want to double-crop soybeans might see an advantage to barley since harvest dates are projected to be earlier than for wheat.
Last year, the northwest Ohio growers he worked with harvested six days sooner, on average. This year, however, he expects to see the harvest dates closer together for barley and wheat because of the spring weather conditions. Some Ohio barley growers also saw a significant amount of winterkill this past winter, he says.
OSU and OARDC are continuing to work with farmers to evaluate barley varieties and production practices, and to determine where barley fits in Ohio’s crop mix. “It is not a silver bullet,” Richer says. “We have a tremendous amount to learn as growers and as the university.”
OSU also has developed resources on malting barley, which are available online at OSU winter malting barley.
More information on Origin Malt is available online at originmalt.com; farmers interested in contracting with Origin Malt to raise malting barley can request more information by clicking on the “For farmers” tab.
Keck writes from Raymond, Ohio.