How Bad Is The 2014 Barley Crop? Growers, Maltsters, Brewers and Drinkers Await the Results

Montana was predicted to top the list of barley producing states this year with an expected 900,000 acres of barley to be planted, according to the Prospective Plantings Report released by the American Malting Barley Association last March.

Actual production is an entirely different matter with storms causing wide-spread damage across Idaho, Montana and Alberta.

Roughly five inches of rain swept through part of Idaho and Montana in late August and early September, shattering records in what is typically a very dry part of the year. The storms caused the barley to sprout while still in the field. Wet snow blanketed much of Alberta’s crop followed by freezing temperatures causing extensive damage.

Brewers big and small are already bracing for higher malt prices while warning consumers to expect price increases for their favorite beer.  “With no malt, there is no beer” explained Rick Slotness, Plant Manager for Malteurop’s malting facility in Great Falls, Montana.

At this point, only one thing remains clear. No one yet knows just how the crop damage will affect the malt supply and its effect on the cost of beer.

Malteurop’s Great Falls facility is the most automated malting plant in the world, according to Slotness.  It’s batch size is the second largest, comprising 20,000 bushels at a time – roughly equating to 3,400,000 beers. Malteurop starts a batch every 15 hours. To say they need a lot of barley is an understatement.

Rick Slotness

Rick Slotness, Malteurop Plant Manager for Great Falls

Slotness spoke last Saturday to a group of homebrewers who had gathered in Missoula for the Montana Homebrewers Association’s conference. He minced no words when describing the effect of the storms.

“[The] Idaho Falls crop is really bad, Canada – not good, Montana – 50% of it got harvested before the rains hit, so 50% of it is really good, 50% of it is going to die at some point,” said Slotness. “We’ve had some pre-sprout over the years, but nothing of this magnitude.”

Erik Somerfeld grows barley near Power on the edge of Montana’s famed Golden Triangle, a premier grain-growing region in the north-central part of the state. He contracted with MillerCoors for this year’s crop. Somerfeld was not done harvesting when the rain hit.  What was left in the fields ranges from 6% to 40% sprouted.

“Most of the southern Golden Triangle’s dryland was done,” said Somerfeld. “About half of the irrigated barley on the Fairfield Bench was done. You get north of Conrad and almost none was cut and the same goes for the rest of the Hi-line all the way to the North Dakota border. Southern Montana around Hardin down into Wyoming was harvested by then. Briess contracts for barley in that area.”

Contrary to some news reports, sprouted barley is not useless for malting.

“We’re working with the farmers to get the pre-sprouted stuff in ASAP and get it malted before it goes bad,” Slotness explained. “It’s pre-sprouted, it’s still alive, but at some point – and nobody knows when that’s going to be – when it dies it’s dead. It’s over. So, the best thing we can do is get it through the plant and get it produced into malt before it’s too late.”

“It’s very labor intensive and putting huge pressure on the plant,” said Slotness. “But if we don’t use it, we’re going to be short.”

Joaquin Mendez is the Malting Process Manager at Malteurop. He explained the difference between using standard barley and the pre-sprouted version.

“Essentially, the malting process started in the fields,” said Mendez. “Instead of starting in the vessels, it’s starting in the field. So instead of starting from zero like we normally do, now we have five to sixty percent of the kernels which have started the process already.”

“We’ve done fifteen batches so far,” said Mendez. “It’s very tricky and it’s not perfect, but it is very, very good.”

The overall effect from the damage to the barley crop will not be known for a while.

There will be losses,” Somerfeld acknowledges. “A lot seems to depend on variety. MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch varieties tend to have more damage than Metcalf. Their varieties are bred to sprout quickly so it doesn’t take as long to malt. Metcalf was bred mainly for its agronomic qualities. Craft breweries will be most interested in the Metcalf which wasn’t hurt as bad.”

Those [growers who] had no contracts with good stuff are shopping it around to all of the malt buyers looking for the best deals,” said Somerfeld. “The bad stuff will have to make its way through the system before it is really known if there is a real shortage.”

“I expect the big guys to come out with some new kind of beer that uses this lower quality stuff,” said Somerfeld.  “They have to slow down the malting process and that can push up the protein content. The ‘Ice’ and ‘Dry’ fads came from challenging malt years.”

What it means for the consumer remains months in the making.

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