- Author: Konrad Mathesius
Fluctuations in commodity prices mean that wheat can be a darling or a demon. When prices are high, wheat can command more acres pushing up the prices for canning tomatoes. When prices are low, growers are inclined to look at wheat's value in terms of metrics other than just yield, such as its role in the mitigation of disease pressure in tomatoes or the benefits associated with maintaining a cover crop in the winter. When wheat prices drop low enough, farmers begin looking for other options. Recently, the combination of wheat prices at a 15-year low and the rise of craft brewing culture in the American west has generated inquiries into the possibility of growing malting barley.
In the last decade alone, the number of breweries in the U.S. has nearly tripled from 1,460 in 2006 to 4,269 in 2016. California's brewing industry is no exception. This year's Beer Week in Sacramento boasted brews from 57 different local breweries. Much of this recent growth in breweries is concurrent with a rise in demand for locally-sourced products. The virtual non-existence of local malting facilities is somewhat puzzling when one considers the volume and enthusiasm for craft breweries springing up in the state, not to mention the existence of the Chico-based power house, Sierra Nevada Brewing.
While much of the demand for craft beer is still somewhat of a niche market, the competition among craft brewers to generate a unique product out of a 5,000-year-old beverage has inspired some demand for local inputs, beginning mainly with hops. Several breweries and growers have begun producing their own: Ruhstaller's hop fields are visible for a brief second at 65mph on the I-80 corridor, and while California doesn't even have an official Corn Growers association, there is a newly-revived California Hop Grower's Association.
The existence of hops in California is nothing entirely novel. Both barley and hops do fairly well in California and as such have a historical precedent in the State (towns with names such as ‘hop land' aren't just a coincidence); however, malting barley production can be challenging on account of California's irregular rainfall patterns. Because the protein content in malting barley should be below 12.5% for the best results in the brewing process, and given California's seeming penchant for either deluge or drought, nutrient and irrigation timing/ management becomes a critical matter addressed by both luck and skill: applying too much nitrogen can lead to prohibitively high protein content, too little will lead to insufficient yields, and the excess/ absence of rain can either flush out any applied nitrogen or stress crops to the point of producing poor yields or practical failure.
Unfortunately, both the hop and barley industries tapered off following more centralized mass production operations in the Pacific northwest, Canada, and the mid-west. Whether this was due to competition for space from higher-valued commodities, the growing conditions, or the rise in other production areas further north is difficult to ascertain. Most likely it was a combination of these and other factors. Despite the recent uptick in interest for hops. Malting barley production is limited by access to maltsters.
A maltster, the trade name for ‘one who malts', is responsible for basically fooling the barley grain into thinking that it's found itself a decent place to germinate. This initiates a series of chemical reactions in the grain that make starches more accessible to enzymes during the mash phase of brewing. Long-chain starches and sugars are then converted into more accessible forms of sugars for yeast, the workhorse in the fermentation of ales and lagers. This required step in the journey from seed to beverage has historically created a bottleneck between California's would-be barley growers and the brewing locales that specialize in creating a certain widely-enjoyed beverage.
Despite the vast amount of farmland in the surrounding region and Sacramento's much-touted title as the Farm-to-Fork Capital, California's malting barley has largely been Washingtonian, Idahoan, and Canadian barley processed by maltsters throughout the American northwest and then shipped to California by rail. Recently however, that has begun to change, and while the industry is not yet awash with eager maltsters ready to work on deals with California's skilled growers, some nascent options are available.
Lance Jergensen of Rebel Malting specializes in custom malts. His Reno location on the other side of the Sierra Nevada is relatively convenient for some small brewers and growers in the Central Valley. The malt is processed in small batches and shipped out to distilleries and brewers in the area.
Eckert Malting of Chico, CA specializes in rice malting. Rice malt is occasionally used as adjuncts to a barley grain bill in brewing, as is the case with Budweiser's traditional recipe, but can also be used with other ingredients such as corn or sorghum to produce gluten-free beers.
Exclusive barley malting has been somewhat slower to return to California; but after clearing several initial hurdles, Admiral Maltings appears to be leading the charge in Alameda. Ron Silberstein of Thirsty Bear Brewing sees Admiral Maltings approach as walking before running. Annually they are only looking to malt about 1,500 tons and potentially increasing to around 1,800 tons within a few years. This is a relatively small percentage of the market compared to some of the other production facilities around the country, where a mid-sized maltster might produce something on the order of 25,000-30,000 tons annually, not to mention the Rahr malting behemoth at Shakopee Minnesota with an annual capacity of 390,000 to 460,000 tons.
From the grower point of view, finding contracts with maltsters or even brewers might be a challenge. Admiral Maltings contracts with growers through the National Farmers Organization in Corning, CA, which operates as a sort of co-op for numerous commodities as a way for growers to maintain competitive bargaining power. Given the untested state of the market in California, and with only one real route through the malting pipeline to craft brewers, this comes as no surprise.
Limitations for Admiral Maltings come up in the form of storage. Growers with a storage capacity between 100 and 200 tons may be able to work with Admiral Maltings. No-till malting barley should fetch prices in the mid-twenties (cents) per pound, while organic malting barley will sell for somewhere in the mid-thirties per pound. Granted, these prices are for a niche market with low capacity and high expectations on quality (a general overview of small grain production by UCCE can be found here), but when wheat is worth 10 cents a pound, there is little doubt that those prices are substantially more attractive. Growers that are interested should reach out to Admiral Maltings by contacting Ron Silberstein, marketing director for Thirsty Bear Brewing Company and visionary/ coordinator for Admiral Maltings.
Some larger companies have investigated the California market but nothing seems to have come to fruition yet. Startup costs for a large-scale malting facility are, as one might guess, somewhat substantial. But California's robust brewing scene, diverse soils, and enthusiasm for locally-sourced low-carbon-footprint products may yet swing the situation in their favor.
Brewers may be able to take the lead in creating a market for local malt by specifically requesting malt grown in California. The transportation costs to move California barley out of state and back into California seem prohibitive, and indeed, shipping malt into California is essentially importing water into the state. But malt is grown as a winter crop and can play a role in rotations for growers as a way to reduce disease pressure and offer alternatives to wheat; furthermore, malt is not typically a major expense for most brewers. Costs for raw material typically pale in comparison relative to the cost of bottling, labeling, advertisement, and personnel; a unique approach to truly local brewing may provide a burgeoning brewery with a competitive edge.
Malting barley's return to California seems uncertain on a large-scale, but momentum appears to be growing and in time the industry may facilitate the cultivation of a profitable alternative crop for growers.
 Brewersassociation.org /statistics/number-of-breweries/
 $4.62 a bushel (42 lbs.) as of March 6th, 2017 via Macrotrends.net
 Bamforth, C. (2009). Beer: tap into the art and science of brewing. New York, Oxford University Press.