Barley & Beer: A Farmer-Brewer Love Affair
It used to be that if you wanted to get lost in a boozey, pedantic conversation, nothing beat a group of oenophiles with a good bottle of wine. But there’s a new gang of drinkers encroaching on the sniffing and swirling territory, and they have a penchant for flannel. The explosion of the craft brew scene and the flock of beer enthusiasts it has amassed means that beer is no long drunk in degrees of cold and colder. It’s nuanced, it’s analyzed, and now it’s paired with cheeses. While a good beer aficionado is probably tamer than that of wine, craft beer is still in relative infancy - it has time to catch up.
Beyond providing a new arena to channel food/beverage enthusiasm, there is another perk to the rise of craft beer. From the tanks of American craft breweries, a niche market for barley has blossomed. Barley, known as “malt” or “malt barley” in the beer world, is the beverage’s foundation. Dave McLean, master brewer and owner of San Francisco’s legendary Magnolia Brewery, likens barley malt in beer to tomatoes in tomato sauce. And craft brew loves barley. In 2012, despite commanding only 7.8% of the beer market, craft brewers used 25% of the malt used consumed by the entire beer industry. Even more recent studies are showing that the popularity in craft beer is increasing 14% annually, and craft brewers are using four times the amount of barley than the larger corporate brewing operations. As our love for craft beer rises, so does the brewer’s demands for malt.
In an age where we are trying reduce and conserve resources, using four times of one resource might give off odors of irresponsibility. But with barley, driving demand actually has positive benefits, for farmers and the environment. Barley, though neither the sexiest nor most-profitable of grains, plays an important role in the practice of crop rotation, which creates biodiversity. Organic farmer Klaas Martens of Lakeview Organic Farms explains the importance of crop diversity best: “I have found that virtually every agronomic problem we face on our farm can be solved or alleviated by increasing biodiversity....Each species changes the soil in many ways. Each crop leaves the soil in a condition that makes a different species better suited to grow there afterward.” By driving the demand for barley, farmers have an increased financial incentive to employ crop rotation.
This increased market for barley is also recharging a supporting industry in beer production: malting barley. With the rise of craft beer, the “maltster” is back. McLean is one of them and is starting his own malting company in San Francisco with fellow craft brewer Ron Silberstein of Thirsty Bear Brewing. “I guess you could call me a maltster,” he says with a laugh. “But it sounds much more foreboding than it really is.” While the level of badassery in malting can be left for debate, McLean and Silberstein are creating a market for California barley, bringing the brewer-farmer love affair to life in the golden state.
In a food era in which “local” is king, craft beer’s popularity boom and the resurgence of craft malt could lead to the industry’s next evolutionary phase, the terroir of beer. Terroir, literally meaning “land” in French, is a wine term (and a contentious one at that), that means that the environmental conditions in which the grapes are grown can be tasted in the wine. Brewers gaining increased access to local barley malt could mean that terroir will find its way into the brewpub vernacular. Though if even some of the most ardent of wine lovers grumble over the use of terroir, it is almost guaranteed to be met with a few eye rolls in the beer community.
From benefiting the soil and the farmer’s bottom line to giving rise to the new market of craft malt, barley is a driving force in the evolution of beer. And with that comes the beginning of the end, the end to the days in which wine is high brow and beer is low. So the next time you want to get lost in the world of sipping and sniffing, choose a craft beer. Not only will you be on point with the trend, you’ll be helping the environment, too.
Barley and mushroom Risotto
You don’t have to be a brewer to appreciate barley and join in on the crop-rotating, malting movement. Adding to its brewing accolades, barley is considered a superfood and is super easy to cook with, interchangeable with the likes of quinoa and rice. Here is one of my favorite recipes*, perfect for a cold autumn night.
1. Swap out the white wine for beer (craft, naturally) and make it extra barley-tastic.
2. Double the mushrooms - 1 cup just is not enough!