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Barley to meet the demands of Ohio’s craft brewing industry

Robin Coffman, a biology major at the Agricultural Technical Institute, tends to malting barley plants used in a breeding program focused on increasing the local production of a key ingredient in beer brewing.

Karen Skubik

As consumers reach out for craft brewed beer, the number of microbreweries continues to rise — and Ohio is no exception with over 100 small independently owned breweries sprinkled throughout the state.

Combine this with both the demand for locally sourced ingredients for all commodities and growers’ ongoing need to find the most profitable ways to rotate their crops, and a niche market for Ohio-grown malting barley is evident.

The commercial production of malting barley in Ohio has a long history that is somewhat open to interpretation, but Eric Stockinger, an associate professor in the department of horticulture and crop science at The Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, has been able to trace much of the crop’s history as he works toward returning Ohio to a key player in the cultivation of one of beer’s main components: malt. (Malt made for beer brewing typically comes from germinated barley.)

“I had to dig really hard when I started this in 2009,” said Stockinger in reference to researching the country’s complicated barley growing history to provide useful information for his malting barley breeding program.

Stockinger talked to people in OSU Extension, checked the Agricultural Statistics records and spent time looking through old historical records in the OARDC’s library that went back to the 1850s.

A 1950 book on American barley production by John C. Weaver proved most helpful showing the concentration of the crop’s production in the United States over time, and one could speculate how the country’s westward expansion, changes in population centers, times of war and prohibition all played a role in the shifting of barley-growing hubs.

“There was a lot of educated guessing in there,” said the barley-breeder who looked into not only where the barley was grown, but whether it was winter or spring barley, feed or malting barley and who grew the barley.

By 1859 southwest Ohio and San Francisco areas had become major center of barley cultivation.

Stockinger said, “The historical picture I can put together indicates there was about 350,000 acres in southwest Ohio in 1850. Harvested bushels of barley in Ohio were equivalent to wheat at that time. Probably this was all spring barley grown primarily for the malting and brewing industries. The four cultivation centers were all around major cities with lots of thirsty people.”

And once again people thirsty for beer are impacting market demands, and a lot of those people are looking for something a little more flavorful than big brewery lagers. Most microbreweries place their emphasis on quality and flavor, and this may mean carefully selecting the source of malt.

There are murmurs of new malting companies developing business plans, but Haus Malts, a new start up malting company in Cleveland, Ohio, is already in the production phase. Andrew Martahus, a recent college graduate and home brewer, teamed up with his recently retired father, Craig Martahus. “We realized there were no malt houses in Ohio,” said the younger Martahus, who started “one of the first stand-alone craft malting facilities in Ohio, and the only malting facility in Cleveland since prohibition,” according to him.

Haus Malts currently sources their barley from Presque Isle, Maine, but Martahus said, “We think that winter malt quality barley could be a great specialty crop in Ohio.” But the chemical engineer turned entrepreneur malter said, “The catch is that malt quality barley has higher quality specs like lower protein, rva/falling number requirements, DON and light color.”

Since “The American Malting Barley Association has made the development of winter malting types of barley a top priority for North American barley breeders,” according to Stockinger, the quality specs listed by Martahus are heading in the right direction as Stockinger tests his breeding lines.

John Armstrong, manager of the Ohio Seed Improvement Association, said the topic of malting barley production “is in its infancy and continues to evolve,” but his organization has “received some in-state and regional inquiries regarding the availability of certified malting barley seed varieties to produce grain for use in small scale or home brewing malting operations.”

There is currently “limited certified seed supplies of winter malting varieties adapted to Ohio that have merit for producing the grain needed for malting,” Armstrong said, but Stockinger is working hard to change that and has numerous plots in both the breeding and production stage and hopes to meet a goal of 100,000 acres of malting barley by 2020.

So, supply and demand seem to be pushing toward a state of equilibrium in Ohio — at least in the brewing industry. As consumers continue their shift to craft beers, Ohio breweries look for local sources of malting barley and new malting operations begin to sprout up and ask for local barley, Stockinger works to meet those demands by breeding lines of locally grown winter barley that are of high quality and can hold up to Ohio’s challenging climate.

Published: February 5, 2016
New Article ID: 2016702059970