WOOSTER, Ohio — About five years ago, higher commodity prices were driving the demand for more acres of Ohio’s top crops, namely corn and soybeans. But now that the trend is changing, farmers are seeking other crops that might be more profitable.
One of those crops is barley, which was actually popular in the Corn Belt region just a few decades ago. But this time, the focus is on a specific type called malting barley.
The malting varieties are typically used in the making of craft beer. They differ from feed-grade barley because they have a higher level of certain enzymes, which convert starch to sugars during the brewing process, and they have lower protein content than feed-grade barley.
Growing and brewing
Stark County farmer Bill Bakan is in his second year of growing malting barley, and also brewing his own beer from his barley. His wife’s family has been farming in the Hartville area since the early 1800s, and in the mid-1990s, his family got into the specialty crop business with their own produce stand.
Today, they operate as Maize Valley Winery and Market, and offer an extensive line of wines and beers made on location.
For Bakan, growing malting barley was a way of adding more value to his operation.
“I was just tired of other people setting our prices and running our lives,” he said. “(With our own barley) we’re vertically integrated — we’re right from the field to a finished product.”
Although he grows and harvests his own, a kind known as Scala, he relies on a professional malt maker in Cleveland to handle the malting.
To malt barley, professionals known as “maltsters” must soak the grain in water, at a controlled temperature, inside of a controlled tank or open room, which leads to germination and a breakdown of the starches.
The whole process has to be carefully monitored, and different varieties of barley require different degrees of malting.
Eric Stockinger, a barley breeding and genetics researcher at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, has been researching malted barley varieties that do well in Ohio since 2008.
“Any farmer in Ohio who knows how to grow wheat could probably grow good barley,” he said.
Both grains are best planted in late fall, and barley gets harvested a couple weeks earlier than wheat — usually late to mid-June for barley — which allows farmers more opportunity to plant a second crop in the same field, usually soybeans.
But farmers who are thinking about growing malted barley need to think it through first. They need to know where their end-market will be, what expectations the maltster and brewer might have, and what varieties will best suit their buyer’s needs.
Stockinger and his team of researchers are studying more than 1,500 plots of barley on the Wooster campus for things like yield, earliness of maturity, malting quality and resistance to disease and wind damage, known to farmers as “lodging.”
The goal for researchers is to combine the desirable traits into varieties that will do well — from farm to bottle.
“My goal is to produce and deliver the varieties that do well here in Ohio,” Stockinger said, noting that Ohio is actually well suited for barley because of the cool climate, which produces lower-protein grain.
And Ohio is suitable for another reason: the rapid growth of craft breweries that want locally sourced grain.
“The craft brewing movement is actually changing the dynamics of where the ingredients come from and the rules of the game,” he said. “There’s a lot of craft maltsters that are popping up all over the place and they’re looking for locally grown barley varieties.”
For farmers, that means more value for their crop. If marketed right, Stockinger said they can realize $6-7 a bushel, compared to about $4 they might get for a bushel of wheat. And after the grain is harvested, the barley straw is a valuable resource, as well.
Matt Cunningham, a grain farmer in Union County and part owner of Rustic Brew Farm, grows and malts his own barley, and sells it to brewers across the state. Last year he grew 100 acres, and this year he is working on 50.
His family farms about 2,600 acres of commodity crops, but “because of what the grain markets did back in 2013,” he was looking for a new venture.
That led him to not only grow his barley, but invest in the technology to malt it for other brewers. His first malting unit did 500-pound batches in 10 days, and he recently began using a new unit, which can malt two tons in the same amount of time.
Cunningham sells to about a dozen craft brewers across the state and said demand continues to increase.
“I can’t even crack the surface on the demand in Ohio,” he said.
Maize Valley sends its barley to Haus Malts, in Cleveland, where 24-year-old Andrew Marthahus, and his father, Craig, are in their third year of operating a custom malting business. So far, they have supplied more than 40 breweries in Ohio with malted grain, and they also malt other grains, to be used in food products.
Like others, Andrew said malting is a real science and a lot of things can go wrong if it’s not done carefully. He holds a chemical engineering degree and finds himself constantly monitoring the malting process for temperature, moisture absorption and germination.
“It’s very complicated and time-intensive process,” Andrew said.
Haus Malts uses a stainless steel grain bin for malting, and can malt about two tons in eight days. Some larger malt operations west of Ohio use large, confined rooms for malting, where they spread the grain over a sanitized floor, and keep it stirred.
Most of the malted barley grown in the U.S. is grown in states west of the Mississippi River, according to Stockinger. He estimated there 1,000 acres grown in Ohio.
But as the research improves and as brewers continue to brand themselves with a local product — the opportunity for Ohio barley looks promising.
“There’s a lot of craft maltsters that are popping up all over the place and they’re looking for locally grown barley varieties,” Stockinger said. “The problem is that the U.S. hasn’t put any effort into developing varieties for malting purposes in the regions where most of these people are.”
Bakan said some brewers could probably save money by buying their barley from other growers, but he sees growing it and making his own beer as a way of completing the local product chain, and “honoring the heritage” of Ohio agriculture.