Field day explores the challenges and rewards of growing malting barley

Posted: June 24, 2015

Where the craft brewing and local food movements intersect, an opportunity lies for Pennsylvania farmers, as brewers seek to purchase more locally sourced ingredients for their beers.
Participants in the June 11 field day got an up-close look at the Penn State barley variety field trials at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center.

Participants in the June 11 field day got an up-close look at the Penn State barley variety field trials at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center.

One such ingredient — malting barley — was the subject of a recent field day sponsored by Penn State Extension, where more than 90 farmers, brewers, and maltsters gathered to hear about this crop’s potential, how it is used by craft brewers, and what Penn State researchers are learning about it in their field trials.

While barley isn’t a new crop to Pennsylvania, it’s typically grown for animal feed, and there are important differences between feed barley and malting barley, explained Greg Roth, professor of agronomy. “Cows are not as picky as maltsters,” he said, referencing the high standards that a barley crop must meet in order to be useful to the people who turn it into malt.

Several maltsters were on hand to weigh in on what they’ve learned from their efforts to make high-quality malt from Pennsylvania-grown barley. Malt is simply barley that has been sprouted and then heated in a tightly controlled process, explained Josh Oliver, owner of Deer Creek Malthouse based in Glenn Mills, PA. Malt contributes to the beer-brewing process and to beer itself in a number of ways, said Oliver, and the quality of the malt is directly related to the quality of the barley.

Maltsters evaluate barley quality on a number of measures: germination rates of at least 95 percent, very low moisture content, kernel plumpness, and presence of broken kernels are just a few, according to Adam Seitz, owner of the Spring Mills-based malthouse, Penns Mault. Growers who can meet such rigorous standards are paid a premium for their crop, he said, adding a caveat: a 100 percent acceptance rate is unlikely.

“You can definitely produce malting-quality barley in Pennsylvania, but you’re probably not going to produce malting-quality barley year after year after year,” he said. That’s because variable weather conditions and corresponding disease pressure make it difficult to consistently grow a crop to such high standards.

Researchers at Penn State are working to overcome these challenges and to improve farmers’ success with this crop. Roth led field day participants on a tour of the barley field trials he and his colleagues are conducting at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center, where dozens of spring and winter barley lines are being evaluated for earliness, winter hardiness, disease resistance in the Pennsylvania climate, yields that are competitive with field barley, and quality.

Earliness is a trait especially important to Pennsylvania growers, who likely will be fitting barley into a corn-soybean rotation, said Roth. When planted in September, early varieties can be harvested in June, leaving enough time for a soybean crop to be planted. Over-wintered varieties are out-performing their spring-planted counterparts in the field trials, mainly due to the competitive edge against weeds that the fall planting provided, Roth explained. On the other hand, winter kill can be a problem, a fact that may leave growers in northern parts of the state no choice but to plant in spring.

Roth and plant pathologist Alyssa Collins described two diseases that compromise barley quality. Barley yellow dwarf, a virus spread by aphids, depresses yields and is best prevented by controlling aphid populations. Fusarium head blight, or head scab, a fungus often found on corn-crop residue, spreads by spores and can cause low yields and poor kernel development. If the spores are introduced to the barley plant during blossom stage (usually by way of rain splash), they will infect the grain with a vomitoxin, compromising its value as either malt or feed.

Fusarium can be controlled with fungicides, and the researchers are studying how three different fungicide treatments are interacting with spring barley varieties. These experiments, which are being replicated by collaborators in other parts of the country, will shed light on how variations in climate may affect these interactions, said Collins.

The Penn State researchers also are assessing the barley varieties’ performance under organic management, using composted poultry manure and Chilean nitrate as nutrient sources. Roth feels that organic production is possible, and suggested that organic growers stick with winter varieties to avoid the weed pressure that accompanies spring planting. They can hedge their bets against Fusarium by planting two or more varieties with staggered maturity dates, so that if one crop becomes infected, the other may still yield a marketable crop. Roth also recommended that organic growers have an alternative market in mind, should their crop become infected with Fusarium, making it unmarketable to maltsters.

All this talk about growing, malting, and brewing may have left some participants a bit thirsty, but not for long. The field day wrapped up with a tasting of Pennsylvania Pale Ale, a tasty brew developed by State College-based Otto’s Brewery using malt made by Deer Creek Malthouse. Whether Pennsylvania malts become commonplace remains to be seen, but if this field day turnout is any indication, there’s no lack of interest.

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