Craft beer boom drives demand for new malt barley varieties

It’s all about consistency and efficiency for the big brewers, but the 
small guys want unique taste and also use more malt per batch

Reading Time: 4 minutes

New malt barley varieties will soon hit the market to meet the growing demands of a burgeoning craft brewing industry.

“The brewing and malting industry is changing,” said Pat Juskiw, a barley breeder with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

“In the past, our industry has been composed of big companies — the Molsons, the Labatts, the Anheuser-Busches. And these big breweries are only using about 50 per cent of the malt produced.

“On the other hand, the craft brewing market, which is only about 10 to 20 per cent of the industry in volume of sales, uses the other 50 per cent of the malt produced.”

The craft brewing industry in Alberta is still relatively small, but growing every day, Juskiw said at the Lacombe Field Day in late July. In 2013, there were around 15 craft brewers across the province, and that number has more than doubled, with 37 craft brewers in the market today. Since May 2015 alone, 16 new ones have been licensed to operate in the province.

And with the provincial government’s injection of $20 million in grant funding to the industry, craft brewers will be able to “increase production capacity, launch new products, develop new markets, make important capital improvements, and create jobs,” according to a recent government release.

Those who produce and sell less than 300,000 hectolitres of beer are now eligible for the Alberta Small Brewers Development Program, which will help offset a price markup of $1.25 for all beer sold in Alberta that began Aug. 5.

Barley breeders like Pat Juskiw are working on new malt barley varieties that will better fit the needs of Alberta’s craft brewers.
Barley breeders like Pat Juskiw are working on new malt barley varieties that will better fit the needs of Alberta’s craft brewers. photo: Jennifer Blair

New malt barley varieties

As the craft brewing market grows, so too must Alberta’s malting industry, said Juskiw. And craft brewers are looking for something a little different from their malt.

“We’ve had huge, multinational companies, and what huge, multinational companies want is consistency of product and economies of scale,” she said. “That means they only want one or two varieties, and they want that one or two varieties to grow the same everywhere in the world.”

Brewing is a “huge, homogenous industry” that loves AC Metcalfe, she said.

“But it’s 20 years old. Just like Harrington was replaced by AC Metcalfe, it’s time to replace AC Metcalfe with a new variety.”

Large brewers also want economies of scale, she added.

Malt is really expensive, partly because of how it is produced, Juskiw explained. When a barley seed is put into a water bath to germinate, it releases enzymes that convert complex carbohydrates to sugars and amino acids, which produce alcohol when added to yeast.

“What the big multinationals found is if we get more enzymes in our malt, they can add adjunct like corn syrups or rice that can feed the yeast, and they don’t have to buy as much malt,” she said.

“Because the craft brewing industry is looking at a slower process, they don’t use adjunct, so they don’t need all those enzymes or protein or amino acids.”

That’s prompted Canadian barley breeders to work on new malt barley varieties that will meet the different needs of craft brewers — including one recently registered (as yet unnamed) variety that should hit the market in the next two years.

“We’re excited about this variety because it’s our low variety,” said Juskiw. “It’s got lower enzymes and lower proteins, so it is for the craft brewing market.”

Standing out in the crowd

If producers want to access that growing craft brewing market, they’ll need to start thinking about the different varieties they can grow, said Matt Hamill, co-owner of Red Shed Malting, a small-scale maltster that caters to the craft brewing industry.

“Lots of craft brewers are going to be looking for a way to do something a little different than the other guys,” said Hamill, who runs the company near Penhold with his brother Joe and their family.

“A lot of craft brewers are going to be doing an all-grain beer, so they want the barley that’s only designed for beer and that’s it.

“Some of these new varieties make a lot more sense for us as a maltster.”

But producing malt barley for the craft brewing industry requires a different mindset, he said. That includes understanding the varieties that are coming up through the system and “talking to consumers about what they do to make them comfortable with the growing practices.”

“The local food movement is gaining a lot of steam,” said Hamill. “People want to know the ingredients that are going in there, they want to know the story, and they want to put a face to the product.”

Red Shed Malting began roasting barley at the start of the year, and in April, putting the first batches of its own barley through the system.

“Dad has a grain farm just outside of Penhold. My brother Joe was doing some homebrewing, and we got interested — and eventually obsessed — with tasting some of Dad’s barley in Joe’s beer,” said Hamill.

“We started doing some research into the industry, and we realized that we had some great companies in Alberta that are making some fantastic base malts, but there isn’t a lot of local speciality maltsters.

“That’s where we fit in. If people want to do a craft beer with lots of flavour and different colours, we can fill that void.”

Red Shed is now supplying malt to craft brewers like Hell’s Basement in Medicine Hat, Troubled Monk in Red Deer, and Blindmand Brewing in Lacombe. But its total annual capacity is only around 250 tonnes of malt — a relatively small number when compared to large-scale maltsters like Rahr Malting.

“To compare that to some of the other guys, we’re less than one-quarter of one per cent of one of their plants.”

But there’s plenty of room to grow, he added.

“Since we first started planning, the number of craft breweries in Alberta has doubled since then, and the capacity at some of the existing ones has also doubled,” said Hamill.

“It’s definitely an exciting industry that’s growing really fast. There’s tons of new craft brewers popping up all the time, and they’re making great products. We anticipate that they’ll continue to grow.”

About the author


Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.



Stories from our other publications