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Barley quality is crucial in the malting process for Matt Cunningham’s Rustic Brew Farm in Union County.

Brewery boom yields potential for farm

In 2011, Ohio was home to 32 craft breweries.

Now there are at least 220 Ohio breweries and many are looking for homegrown flavors for their key ingredients: barley and hops.

Matt Cunningham of Marysville took notice of Ohio’s craft beer boom back in 2013.

“We grow corn and soybeans and a little bit of wheat. I was looking to stay on the farm but do something else,” Cunningham said. “I saw all of these craft brewers popping up everywhere so I started growing hops.”

Cunningham’s Union County Rustic Brew Farm started with 100 hops plants.

“I wanted to start small to get my head wrapped around it. This is the third year and the first year for a full crop. We had a decent crop last year. I put telephone poles in the corner of a field. I think we have 12 poles. There is one wire across the top but every plant needs its own twine. I use baler twine for now. The plants wrap around it so tightly you just have to cut the line down,” he said. “The first challenge was that I couldn’t use any of our farm equipment for the hops. It is a lot of handwork — hand pruning, training on the twine so the bines can climb, hand spraying, and hand harvest. It is a lot of work.”

There is equipment to ease some of the hand labor, but it is cost prohibitive for the small size of the operation.

“Disease is a challenge with hops. If you don’t spray you will get disease. Some fungicides you have to spray as much as every 10 days. I use a wand to spray it now. The right way to do it is with an orchard sprayer — those air blast sprayers are the way to go,” he said. “They have harvesting machines that are $30,000 to $60,000. Some people cut the bines and take them to the harvesters. I pick by hand but to get any bigger I’d have to get a harvester or take the bines to one. It takes a person 30 minutes per bine to harvest and the harvester can do it in 30 seconds.”

Harvest is typically in August and the hops are then sold soon after.

“There are three ways to sell it. One is wet right of the bine that is about 70% moisture. It creates a logistical challenge for the brewery because it has to be in the brew kettle within 24 to 48 hours or it starts to mold but if they can do it right, it gives the beer a unique taste,” Cunningham said. “You can also air dry the cones down to 10% and sell the dry whole cone, but it is messy and the leaves fall off. The most common is dried and pelletized. That is how the commercial hops farms sell them. They store a lot longer that way. There are three pelletizing machines in the state. There are several farms that have been doing this for 10 years and they have the machines. I dry the hops here at the farm and take them to be pelletized at Mankato Farms in New Carlisle. This year, I do have some interest from a brewery in Powell to come pick them and take them wet. It is so time sensitive, though, that it can be hard to make that work.”

He is hoping to expand the hops portion of the farm, possibly next summer, to around 1,000 plants, or about an acre. With his initial work with hops, he found out more about demand for barley in the brewing process.

“One of the brewers I was working with said I should try barley. I started planting barley in a one-acre plot in the fall of 2014,” Cunningham said. “I thought you could just grow a special kind of barley and sell it right to brewers, but it has to be malted first or it is useless for brewers. Malting transforms the starches in the seed into sugars that the yeast will consume to make alcohol. I started looking at the malting process. It sounds simple. It is germinating it by getting it wet and then getting it dry. But it’s a lot more complicated than that. Consistency is the key, even within each kernel. You have to keep temperatures even so every kernel is the same. I have been doing it for a year and a half and I just feel like now I am starting to make decent malt. I learned a lot of things the hard way.”

In Ohio, fall or spring barley can be grown, but Cunningham prefers fall planting.

“With spring there are more disease issues. I planted some in the spring of 2015. I had a rough experience. For human consumption, the disease level has to be almost zero and I have had much better luck with the fall barley so far. It is pretty similar to wheat,” Cunningham said. “It goes in after beans. In the summer you can harvest it a little earlier than the spring barley. Fertility is similar to wheat but with less nitrogen. I use 90 pounds of N total for the whole crop — 20 of pounds MAP in the fall and 70 pounds of 28% in the spring. Fungicide is a big thing. Spraying with Prosaro is a must for getting the quality that you need.”

Now he grows 50 acres of barley, planting two different varieties. Seeding rates and production are pretty similar to wheat. In 2016, Cunningham’s barley yielded around 65 or 70 bushels per acre and the Puffin he planted for 2017 harvest made 52, which was expected because it is a low yielder.

“Yield is not the most important factor. Brewers want lower protein barley, which means they need less nitrogen than you would normally put on wheat. Protein is one of maybe 10 things you need for malting quality. You also need an above 95% germination rate,” Cunningham said. “Low vomitoxin is really important. For cattle, you can have 10 parts per million and for humans it needs to be 1 ppm legally and most malters want it less than that. They also want fairly consistent size. You cannot have much pre-harvest sprout, so it is like wheat but the quality standards are tougher. And, you can’t dry it with heat so I have to wait for it to dry in the field. Ideally I’d have a small bin with a huge aeration fan to harvest it a little wetter. I harvested at 12% this year, which is about right.”

After harvest, samples of the barley are sent to multiple labs where they are tested for germination rate, vomitoxin levels, protein, plumpness, and water sensitivity. The tests from different labs are compared for accuracy. After two to three months, the barley is ready for malting.

“Some varieties have dormancy that prevents them from sprouting in the field, which is nice, but then you can’t malt them until they break dormancy. Once it is ready, you bring it into the malt house,” Cunningham said. “Then we clean it and load it into the steep tank. We steep it for two to four days with alternating wet and dry cycles to bring the moisture up to 45%. Then it starts to chit or sprout. It converts the starch reserves in the seed to sugars. We let that process go as evenly as possible. Consistency is the key for good malt. You have to keep it wet and cool. It gives off its own heat. You have to mix it twice a day to maintain airflow and keep it from clumping up. My system mixes it twice a day by rotating it and it does better than I could do.

“The germ process takes four to seven days. The acrospire growth needs to be the whole length of the seed and you need to check to see that most of the starch has been converted to sugar. You can’t let it go too long or it starts to use the sugars for growth. Then you have to stop the germ process so you dry it. I use high airflow and low heat. Once it gets dry enough you switch to more heat and less air. You can make all kinds of malt. How you dry it, what temperature and how long determine the color and flavor of the malt and eventually the beer.”

Pale malt, for example, is dried slower and at a lower temperature. Darker malts require higher temperatures.

“I have only done three types of malt — pilsner, pale and Vienna — but there are really infinite possibilities. I think it is extremely interesting how a slight change in the malt house can make a big difference in the malt. The details are really important. The malting process takes about 10 days,” he said. “Pilsner is the lightest and roasted is the darkest with a big color scale in between. There is scale from 1 to 500. My pilsner is a 1.7 color, which is pretty light, but that is what they want for that type of beer. The darker stuff takes more expense. From when I plant the barley to the time I sell the malt is around a year.”

Cunningham started malting with a simple setup.

“The first system I built was on a tight budget. It was very labor intensive and intimate, but it helped me

This malting facility features custom made equipment.
This malting facility features custom made equipment.

get the kinks out of the system. It made some decent malt and some good beer. I know first hand,” Cunningham said with a smile. “The demand was such that I knew that this could grow into something big. The brewers wanted more. I decided to instead of doing it as a hobby to do it more as a profession. I went out and got a loan and built a bigger system that has about eight times the output of the old system. It will be more product and a better quality product.”

Cunningham researched larger malting systems and drew up a sketch of what he wanted and gave it to BCast Stainless Products in Plain City and they built a prototype for him. The production system is inspected and overseen by the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

“My stuff is local and fresh. I put the kiln date on my bags so they know how fresh it is. Brewers all want local stuff, but it also has to be quality. It has been a learning process and now I have the quality they are used to so they don’t have to sacrifice quality by being local,” Cunningham said. “Mine, for simplicity, is all in one vessel so there is less handling but also less flexibility. Transferring wet barley is tough because it is heavy but you have to be gentle. I was hauling it between two vessels in five gallon buckets with my first system. I am glad those days are done.”

Interest in Ohio malting is growing quickly, but there are currently only two or three malting houses in Ohio.
“The other malters and I together at full capacity can only satisfy half of a percent of the Ohio demand,” Cunningham said. “There are starting to be more farmers contracting with malt houses to sell their barley, but there are not many people who grow it and make the malt.”

There is certainly potential for profitability in malted barley, but there is also significant risk.

“The secondary market for barley is non-existent in Ohio. If it doesn’t meet malt quality, what do you do with it? There is nowhere to get rid of it,” Cunningham said. “It is either all or nothing. If a farmer is just selling barley to a malt house it is slightly more profitable than corn and soybeans. The malting is profitable but it is a challenge.”

Hops and malt production capitalize on Ohio’s brewery boom.
Hops and malt production capitalize on Ohio’s brewery boom.

Beyond the potential for profits, barley malting (and the hops) provides a nice way for Cunningham to connect what happens on his farm with a high quality end product.

“I am still very far in the red right now but it is going well. I am getting quality products and the interest is there. The people I am working with are great. They know I am trying something new and they are willing to work with me. I think this can turn into something pretty good,” he said. “With corn and soybeans, you go to the elevator, open the door and you never see it again. This has its challenges, but at the end I hand deliver it to a brewer and a month later, I go back and taste the actual barley I grew and malted on my farm in a glass with my friends. The devil is in the details. They have been malting barley for a long time, and it is very simple to make malt but to make consistent malt is something different. It is simple, but it is very complicated.”

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One comment

  1. Destined for brewing ODA shouldn’t have anything to do with the process. They are ignorant of alcoholic beverage businesses and supplier quality and production issues. They just regulate because of licensing fees they want to abscond from processors. Fine for ODA to regulate the crop growing that is their forte. The food safety division should stay out of alcoholic beverage areas where their has been no incidences of real food safety issues we can find. They also duplicately license and regulate wineries. Wine kills human pathogens and pathogens are not viable in beer either. Search online for FreeTheWineries and Facebook.

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