Craft beer boom spurs growth in Mich. barley production
Kalkaska, Mich. — Troy Jenkins stood amid the gently blowing barley grasses at his Kalkaska County farm, carefully chewed a kernel, waited to feel a crunch.
A crunchy kernel means the crop is dry and ready for harvest. Jenkins fired up the combine to test the crop’s moisture level.
It clocked in at 14.7 percent. Just right.
“It’s coming off today,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins planted 20 acres of barley for the first time this year. He’s working with Jeff Malkiewicz to make malted barley, a common beer ingredient often sourced from the western U.S.
Michigan’s craft beer boom and the popularity of local agriculture sparked renewed interest in malted barley. Two malt houses already are operating in the state and three more are set to open in the next two years, said Christian Kapp, research assistant at the Michigan State University Upper Peninsula Research Center.
Two of those are in northwest Michigan. Malkiewicz, co-founder of the Great Lakes Malting Co., plans to open a malt house near Traverse City in early 2016. He’s looking for space to house the business, but already working with Jenkins to harvest and store barley for future production.
Alison Babb, founder of the Empire Malting Co., is even closer to operation. She’s waiting for electricity connections to power her malt house and hopes to flip the switch late this month. She and nearby farmers harvested 300 acres of malting barley this year.
Brewers use malted grain to create sugar, which turns into alcohol in the brewing process. David Hale, head brewer at the North Peak Brewing Co. in Traverse City, said grains such as barley are the foundation ingredient, while hops, which provide citrus, floral or bitter flavors, are the spice.
Casual beer drinkers may overlook malt flavors, but brewers don’t.
“Without barley you’re not going to get all the different types of flavors you really need,” Hale said. “It’s the first thing we use besides water in the process. It’s the base flavor in beer.”
Hale is waiting until local malt houses build up supplies of consistent product before he’ll buy from them.
Michigan’s malting barley production plummeted in the 1980s when Stroh Brewery Co. closed its Detroit brewery. Building a new supply isn’t easy. Brewers, malt makers and farmers have to collaborate to make the industry churn.
“It’s not like a commodity crop where anybody can put malting barley in the field and go sell it at the elevator,” Kapp said. “You need to have your market predefined before you go out and grow.”
Babb is counting on collaborating with brewers excited to experiment. She welded much of the equipment in her Empire malt house herself and had the rest custom made. Knowing every nut and bolt of the machinery is a step toward crafting malts.
“A lot of it has to do with the processing and the timing and the environmental controls, as far as temperature and moisture uptake,” Babb said.
High quality barley starts in the field. Brewers want barley with low protein levels, with no sign of blight, that haven’t sprouted before harvest. Farmers sometimes have to sacrifice yields to reach that high quality. They stand to lose money if blight or early sprouting strikes a field — dangers brought on by late-season rains.
“If that happens we’d find somebody with cattle to feed it to,” Jenkins said. “Problem is, the grain’s not worth nearly as much. About a third, from the research I’ve done.”
Barley is a good rotational crop for Jenkins, who grows mostly potatoes, because the straw leftover after harvest helps build soil. It also helps him diversify, added security when crop prices fluctuate.
Demand for local ingredients including malted barley is strong among craft brewers, Malkiewicz said. The field is almost wide open.
“The more Michigan grown and Michigan processed barley we can get into beer, the better,” he said. “We all grow together. That’s a sign of success.”