Don’t worry — your favourite beer won’t be in short supply this year, despite recent reports that late-season moisture had seriously harmed Alberta’s malt barley crop.
“The barley quality in 2016 is better than the 2015 crop, hands down,” said Kevin Sich, grain department manager at Rahr Malting near Alix.
“If I needed a lot of wheat to make flour, I might be a little more concerned. If I was a canola-crushing plant that’s still seeing (so much) canola in the field, I’d be a little more concerned. But as a maltster with all the barley in, I don’t really see it as an issue.
“It’s been a decent, high-volume crop.”
Most farmers took their malt barley off first and managed to avoid the worst harvest weather, including the snowfall that hit many parts of the province in early October, said Sich.
“Farmers focused on malt barley. We told farmers, ‘You’ve got some fairly lucrative pricing on your malt barley, and if you lose it to feed, you’re probably looking at losing $3 a bushel — anywhere from $250 to $300 an acre,’” he said.
“Most farmers identified that as their highest-risk crop. They knew that if they could get it off in good shape, they could probably get malt.
“They chased the malt barley and left the wheat behind because there’s not that kind of gains to be seen on a wheat crop.”
As a result, quality has been “pretty consistent” and yields are 10 to 15 per cent higher than last year’s crop.
“I’m not saying there aren’t issues. It’s not all peaches and cream out there, but it’s nowhere near what the media has been making it out to be.”
A harvest ‘surprise’
That’s the case on John Hamill’s farm near Penhold.
“I was concerned that the malt barley crop wouldn’t be that good, but surprisingly, everything went pretty well,” said Hamill.
“When we were out there combining our barley, there was a lot of concern about the quality, but the rain didn’t seem to affect the quality as much as we thought it might. In the end, the barley came off in really good shape, which was a surprise to us.”
Last fall, malt barley quality “deteriorated really fast” following the late-season rains, but that didn’t happen this year, he said.
“Even with the showers, we were able to get all our barley off in really good condition, and I think a lot of farmers were in the same situation,” he said. “There were a few that had some problems with chitting, but for the most part, I think there’s a fairly good supply of malt barley out there.”
Hamill was worried about chitting — when barley germinates and begins to sprout — after last year’s experience, but he was lucky this year.
“We had combined before the rain, and it was less than one per cent chitted. After the first bunch of rain, we went out again, and it was still less than one per cent chitted.”
Now, his barley is in the bin and looking good — it’s dry, it’s plump, it didn’t stain, and germination is 96 per cent or better.
“It’s really good barley. I’m really, really happy with the quality of the barley this year.”
Craft brewers happy
Hamill also co-owns Red Shed Malting, a boutique maltster that caters to the craft brewing industry, and he’s not worried about quality or quantity on the malting side of his operation either.
“There’s lots of barley to fill our demands, and I’ve been talking with Canada Malt and it seems to have lots of supply of good-quality barley,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be too much concern with the quality or the quantity that we have in Canada.”
And while there have been rumblings that Alberta’s craft brewing industry could be facing some shortages this year if the malt barley crop failed, that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
“I don’t think they’ll have any problems this year at all. I think they’ll find that the quality is really good and pretty consistent.”
“I don’t think the craft brewers in Alberta are going to have any worry about getting malt.”
Although growing rapidly, craft brewers only have a 10 to 20 per cent share of the beer market. However, they use roughly 50 per cent of the malt produced. The Alberta Small Brewers Association has been monitoring the malt barley situation, but so far, it hasn’t heard of any issues.
“In craft beer, the malt barley content is a lot higher than it is in industrial-made beers, so if there is a sector that’s going to feel a pinch from it, it’s definitely this one,” said Terry Rock, executive director of the association.
“But one of the things you know when you get into this is that it’s a cyclical industry, whether it’s the price of hops or the price of barley. You expect to be dealing with good years and bad years.”
So craft brewers are well aware of the harvest problems producers have had — and generally prepared to weather any storm, he added.
“One of the key selling points of Alberta-made beer is that we are really connected to our barley growers,” said Rock. “We know first hand what they’re going through because a lot of our breweries have relationships with farmers who are growing their barley.
“No one wants to see a bad crop year. We’re all in it together.”