Friday, January 23, 2015

New York's Barley Conundrum

I’ve been thinking about the barley growing situation in New York.

You may have heard that Senator Chuck Schumer (D) has proposed Federally-subsidized crop insurance for those farmers who grow barley in New York. Like any politicized debate, this issue has two sides to the coin.

On one hand proponents of the measure, acknowledge that although 2-row malting barley doesn’t grow particularly well in New York, agro-biology programs at places like Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension are working on developing disease resistant, and climate adjusted, testing varieties of the grain from other parts of the U.S. and Europe which—hopefully—will grow better in New York, the future. Proponents also feel Federal crop insurance will encourage more farmers to try growing barley, thereby enriching the state’s farming economy and benefitting craft brewers and distillers, which in turn will benefit all of New York State’s economy—one of the main reasons the NY farm brewery law as conceived and passed.

The dissenters, however see it as throwing good money over bad. Estimates on actually finding a stable variety is anywhere from 8 to 12 years in the future. Barley generally likes a cool, dry growing environment—like the upper Midwest and Canada (the county that produces most of the barley used in craft brewing in the United States). New York’s climate is, realistically, too damp for 2-row, making it susceptible to Fusarium head blight, a fungal infection of sorts—which can be poisonous to humans. An editorial in the Albany Times Union put a fine point on the whole issue, rather bluntly:
“But to have the government cover farmers for a risky crop so that beer growers can meet the unrealistic standards of another government program? What is Mr. Schumer drinking?”
As usual, plenty of good arguments on both sides.

Buuuuut, there’s actually a whole other coin—with two totally different sides—that no one is talking about.

Remember when I said 2-Row barley doesn’t grow well in New York? It doesn’t, and never has. The Dutch (and a bit later the Brits) found this out when the settled in New York in the mid to late-17th century. They brewed with wheat, and oats and spelt, and only sometimes with barley, because crop yields were unreliable year to year. That, and wheat beer was rather coveted, as “a taste of home” for many of the early settlers of New Netherland, but I digress.

At some point however, a new kind of barley was introduced to North America—6-row barley. Guess what? It grew pretty well. In fact it grew so well in New York State that by the mid 19th century New York became one of the largest 6-row producers in the country. By 1879, New York produced 46% of the nation’s barley crop (7,792,062 bushels), second only to California.

So problem solved, right? New York should grow and malt 6-row.

Weeellll, there’s a hesitancy on the part of craft brewers to use 6-row. 

Here’s the other first side…of the other coin. There’s a perception that 6-row is an inferior brewing grain. Don’t believe me? Here’s Farm House Malt’s, located in Newark Valley, NY take on that:
We can only speak from our own experience with 2-row vs. 6-row barley varieties, but can tell you this -- the differences are more about perception than reality. Our malting barley experts at Cornell University, who have worked with us for the last two years sorting this out, are in total agreement. 
6-Row is slightly less diastatically powerful, and therefore offers less fermentable sugar, meaning more grain has to be used, or an adjunct has to be added, to brew to strength. Therein lies the rub—adjuncts. Craft brewers don’t like the concept of adjuncts. They want beautiful, easy to use, high sugar yielding 2-row barley. Adjunct brewing smacks of big boy, uber-industrial rice solids, and macro-brewing—like Bud, Miller and Coors—and as everyone knows craft brewers want zero association with those guys.—even when it comes to ingredients. Here’s the thing though, American brewing has almost always used adjuncts—literally for hundreds of years. Thomas Read, a Troy NY brewer, testified to the New York State Legislature in 1835 that his brewery added:
“…about two or three pints of honey to the barrel, we think makes the pale ale finer, and is rather an improvement.”
Honey is an adjunct. The Brits did it too, those same Brits who inspired the American craft brewing craze. Those same Brits who extoll their purist of ingredients—water, hops, yeast and malt—imported millions of tons of American-grown corn into the U.K. explicitly for use in brewing. That is until the Kaiser’s U-boats started sinking all their cargo boats. Oh, yeah let’s not forget about the gold standard of brewers—the Belgians. Belgian candy sugar is an adjunct.

The blind acceptance that 6-row barley and adjunct brewing is bad, is misinformation, and I hate to say, but it’s misinformation that seems to be perpetuated by politics in craft brewing, rather than— perhaps—what might be best for the industry. Far be it for me to imply that craft proponents are prone to blindly accept anything, either.

Okay enough about adjuncts. On to the fourth side of the coin… or is it the second side of the other coin? In any case, and here’s where it gets really sticky—Federal crop insurance or not. Farmers don't want to give up field space to barley because growing malting barley is essentially a niche market. Malting barley is grown for basically one reason—to make booze. Booze is big business, but not as big as food. Corn and wheat are easier to grow and waaaaaay more profitable—think about it, High Fructose Corn Syrup is in just about every food product, and corn-based ethanol is in our gasoline, not to mention how much shit is wheat flour based. And then, there’s the Canadians. How can New York even conceive of competing with the fully established—and significantly cheaper—Canadian barley industry?

So, the Alpha and Omega of New York barley growing is this: brewers have backed themselves in a corner, because the've gotten themselves in bed with politicians who don't really know the whole story—or the industry—and who are waving the "We've got to grow barley in New York because, if North Dakota can do it, so can we!” flag, but the barley that would be the best choice—6-row barley—the brewers don't want to use. The politicians have stepped in it too, because they really don't know why New York doesn't grow barley, or more importantly, that the craft industry doesn't really want the kind of barley that would grow best here—they just want a sound bite to get re-elected.

I'm not sure what side of the, apparently, 4 dimensional coin I'd bet on (although I'm leaning toward the growing and advocating for 6-row route) I just wanted to put the whoooole story in perspective. 

At least it isn’t complicated.


  1. No wonder US craft brewers do not focus on the glories of their malts. They are OUR malts!

    1. Hi everyone,
      This article is full of misinformation. 2-rowed barleys have been preferred by all malt brewers largely because the malt made from 2-rows is more uniform than the malt from 6-rows. Any reasonable malting barley variety develops more diastase than is needed for a mostly or all malt brew. The reason the large brewers encouraged us breeders to develop really high diastatic power varieties is their use of non-diastatic adjunct. While a barrel of Bud Light uses (reportedly) less than a bushel of malt, a barrel of a craft brew uses 2-3 bushels of malt. The corn grits or rice used in an American light lager cost less than does malt. The reason for pushing up diastase was economic.
      There is no resistance to the Fusarium species that produce the mycotoxins that in aggregate have been commonly referred to as 'Vomitoxin' in barley, wheat or their near relatives. Those Fusarium species love wet summers, and love to overwinter on corn stubble. The introduction of short season corn hybrids to the Red River Valley preceded the loss of that region as the nation's primary malt barley production area by a few years. It took the malting and brewing industries a few years to realize that this lovely malt barley production environment could no longer reliably produce maltable barley. Malt barley moved West.
      Malt barley pretty much left the East by 1960, with small pockets of feed barley remaining. VPISU's barley breeding program is still productive, and they're starting to work on malting barley. Still, you need a month of dry weather prior to harvest to be reasonably sure Fusarium won't convert your potential malt crop into cattle feed. Six rows (with the exception of the recently released variety Quest from Kevin Smith's U. Minn. breeding program) typically produce a bit more DON (vomitoxin) than do comparable 2-rows.
      You cannot produce good malt from bad barley. I hope that none of us want to produce malt that will make people sick (vomitoxin is nasty, I experienced it in 1992). The best estimate I've heard from professionals in New York is that non-toxic barley can be produced in upstate New York about one year in three. As long as you keep the grain dry and cool, barley stores well. Unfortunately, I don't think that farmers will be well-served growing a crop that will pretty much fail 2/3 of the time.
      You cannot legislate physics or biology.
      Best regards,
      Tom Blake, Professor Emeritus
      Barley Breeding and Genetics
      Montana State University

    2. Where is exactly is the misinformation? It sounds to me like you're making the same argument as I am.

    3. Tom, read some of the comments as well.

  2. While this article makes a number of valid points some of the claims are simply not true or are misleading and do not reflect the reality of what is happening in this market. I have personally worked with many NY farmers and most of the malt houses since 2012 and I want to clarify some things.

    1.Cornell is not breeding new malting barley varieties. We are simply testing varieties from other parts of the US and Europe.

    2. Both 2-row and 6-row malting barley have production challenges, but they still can make good crops in NY. The level of Fusarium head blight infection can be reduced by the using an integrated pest management approach, which this article does not acknowledge. This article also does not acknowledge that distillers can use barley that doesn’t meet brewing standards in many cases.

    3. Five of the six operational malt houses in NY are accepting 6-row barley and many brewers are using it to make great NY beers.

    I'd be happy to take any follow up questions on this topic.

    Bill Verbeten
    Cornell Cooperative Extension

  3. Hey Bill,

    I can fix, the testing issue—and I will. But IPM or not Fusarium head blight is still an issue. As to the malting of 6-row, I'm pretty sure I quoted a malt house's perspective—a perspective that was quite positive to the malting of 6-row.

    The point of this article is that barley growing—and malting—in New York is being pitched as a "it'll work, it won't work" scenario. That's not true. Barley growing—which includes all the politics, economics and science—is a complicated issue, but an issue worth exploring, and discussing. I wrote this article to show that there are many, many layers and side to this story, and not simply a politician's sound bite, and a don't throw away money editorial.

  4. Craig,

    I agree that Fusarium head blight is, and will be, an issue every year in the Northeast when it comes to growing barley, wheat, rye, oats, or spelt. That’s why we recommend having a distiller and a livestock herd as a back up plan for barley crops that don’t meet the brewers’ standards. We have grown a number of high quality 2-row barley crops in NY alongside 6-row barley crops. At first read the article makes it sound like 2-row won’t work in NY, but I see that you are trying to nuance this topic out a little more. I agree 2-row malting barley varieties are generally at a agronomic disadvantage compared to 6-row varieties in NY. However the newer 2-row varieties are performing much better than their older counterparts.

    As for the economics, yes NY malting barley is much more expensive for malt houses, brewers, and distillers than western barley. We are trying to build a regional market and farmers need the higher prices to justify replacing other crops with it. We will have production costs on the farmer end later this year, and then we will have a better idea of the dollars it takes to get NY barley from seed to glass. So far though, many people are willing and able to pay more for a NY product. We’ll see what the market does long term.

    I’m not touching the politics end of the stick on this topic and I can appreciate your points to encourage people to ask additional questions of their representatives.

  5. My point isn't so much that 2-row doesn't work, it's that 6-row does work.

    I think working on solving the 2-row issue is a fantastic idea, but wouldn't it make more sense to quell the stigma associated with 6-row, and encourage it's use, as well? Why is the use of 6-row not written in as a requirement of the NY farm brewery bill? Why is NYS grown corn not promoted more in brewing?

    Because 6-row, corn, and adjuncts have a bias set against them by brewers and consumers who don't consider those ingredients to be "craft" ingredients. To be honest, I see that as biting ones nose off to spite your face.

  6. Interesting issue. 6-row malting barley is surely the way to go, at least primarily, and New York brewers can focus on the beers that make best use it. Pre-pro lager for example - it doesn't have to use any adjunct, but if some is used, it can remain within limits that don't hurt quality. 15-20% adjunct vs. 40 would make a big difference to palate. One of the big obstacles to all-malt 6-row beer was the protein haze, but today people accept cloudy beer, so that seems a non-issue now.

    Specialty malts can be made from 6-row, so perhaps New York brewers can develop a line in porter, stout, dunkel - there's enough IPA in the market surely. The distiller angle makes sense too.