Quality is good, demand strong so far, and the harvest was night and day from a year ago
It’s a cliché — but most malt growers really do have a reason to raise a glass and toast what has turned out to be a good year.
Last year’s wet harvest made for “a dismal year” but this season has been good for most growers in south and central Alberta, as well as Saskatchewan and Manitoba, said Peter Watts, managing director of the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre in Winnipeg.
“With the dry harvest, we ended up with a pretty nice-quality malting barley crop in 2020,” he said. “Good yields, plump kernels and good germination. Overall, it’s a good year quality-wise.”
Wade McAllister farms near Penhold and said many farmers in his area had a good barley crop.
“The quality was excellent,” said the Alberta Barley vice-chair. “Yields were down about 10 to 15 per cent on the barley from about Calgary north just because of the amount of rain we had. We didn’t get a really hard frost until Thanksgiving, so the majority of the barley was all off before the frost happened.
“It was a really good year for barley. Prices have been strong.”
That’s partly because demand for feed barley has been robust.
“There’s only a 25 cent difference between feed and malt, which is pretty unheard of,” said McAllister. “Malt has to pay a bit more because feed is so strong. I don’t remember ever seeing feed barley this strong.”
Matt Hamill, a maltster and co-owner of Red Shed Malting, said his parents, who own Hamill Farms, also got a great barley crop this year.
“On our farm, it’s been a really nice growing season. We got rains when we needed them, we got sunshine when we needed it,” he said.
While yields were average, quality was good.
“We’re happy with the barley quality. It’s plump, the colour is good, there’s no stain on it, and no germ problems,” he said. “In that respect, we’re really happy with the crop.”
And fears about the pandemic’s effect — demand plummeted with the lockdown in March — have since eased.
“It’s really been a tale of two markets,” said Watts. “We’ve definitely seen a drop in beer consumption in North America and Europe. That translates into a drop for malt… The U.S. is our biggest customer for malt. It’s a struggle for them, and it continues to be a struggle for them on the malt side.”
But there’s been very good demand from China.
“We’ve had really good sales and export movement at a record pace,” said Watts.
Typically, the weekly average for overall barley exports is about 50,000 tonnes, but in the first 12 weeks of the crop year — typically a slow time — 750,000 tonnes were moved.
“That’s more than double last year, and last year was a good year,” he said. “We’ve seen really good demand from the export, particularly China, but a good chunk of that is to Japan as well.”
The Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre has also created a new web page to appeal to their overseas customers.
“Typically, in August, we hold crop tours. Customers from China or other parts of the world come to Canada to see the crop in person. We take them out to farms in Alberta or Saskatchewan or both,” he said.
But because people can’t travel this year, the website is providing updates on the growing season and harvest results, so customers can see just how well the crop turned out.
“It is a good year — we want to emphasize that to our customers,” said Watts.
Craft beer makers rely on local markets, but the story there is fairly positive, too, said Hamill.
“It’s been a wild ride in the craft beer sector,” he said. “When COVID-19 hit in March, everything ground to a stop. People stopped brewing with the amount of uncertainty that was going on.
“Then people realized everyone was still drinking and they got back to work.”
But the sector had to shift the way it operates because pubs and restaurants were closed or operating at greatly reduced capacity.
“No one wanted things sold in kegs,” he said. “Everyone wanted packaged beer.”
Hamill and his co-owners were able to continue their sales to small, independent craft brewers and distillers. And while many of the craft brewers and distillers are seeing reduced sales, they’ve been fairly steady.
“We’re starting to see an uptick in sales now that we’re going into the dark beer season and we have the malt roaster,” he said.
“Alberta craft beer is picking up from some of the other (beer) industries that have been struggling a bit.”
The larger brewers are the ones who sell into stadiums, festivals and sporting events, which have all been impacted by COVID-19, he said, adding craft beer is still a growing market and people are interested in buying local right now.
“Early on in March, April and May, we saw a lot of breweries shift to delivering their own beer, which really helped,” he said.