By DANIELLE WOODWARD
Capital News Service
LANSING – Michigan-grown barley is slowly making a comeback, thanks to the state’s burgeoning craft beer industry.
“The number of breweries is growing, the amount of beer they are producing is growing and the amount of barley they use is proportional to that,” said Scott Graham, executive director of the Michigan Brewers Guild.
However, Graham said, “There has not been much barley production in Michigan since the mid-eighties. There is interest for it in Michigan, and I’ve been working to encourage the reemergence of that as a viable business.
“I think barley could become a significant industry when you look at how much Michigan breweries are making and the fact that you can grow barley in areas that other crops aren’t grown in,” he said. “It has the potential to have quite an impact on our agricultural industry.”
To be used in beer, barley must first be malted, a process that sprouts and dries the grain seed. Limited malting houses in Michigan are the biggest hurdle for farmers and brewers who want to make beer that’s produced from 100 percent local ingredients.
Christian Kapp, a land management specialist for Michigan State University’s Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center east of Marquette, said there’s potential for expansion.
“Since we were able to get the hops market to grow, we are also trying to get good high- quality barley to be produced in the state,” said Kapp. His center does crop and livestock research.
Barley has been grown in “little pockets all over Michigan,” primarily in the Upper Peninsula and Northern Lower Peninsula, he said.
Northern Lower Peninsula counties with more than 100 acres of barley planted in 2012 are Alpena, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Iosco, Mecosta, Oscoda and Presque Isle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics.
Lenawee, Gladwin and St. Joseph counties are among the Southern Lower Peninsula counties with more than 50 acres of barley in 2012, the federal agency said.
Another spur to the commodity is an increasing interest in local ingredients in food and drink, and having beer made with only ingredients from within the state is a big attraction for breweries, Graham said.
“It’s nice to feel like when you’re in Michigan, you’re drinking local beer and supporting local efforts.”
There are only two small-scale malting operations in Michigan, Graham said. Michigan Malt, established in 2009, is based in Shepherd, Isabella County. Pilot Malt House, established in 2012, is in Jenison, Ottawa County.
Ashley McFarland, center coordinator at the UP Research and Extension Center, said, “A lot of farmers want to grow barley in the near future, but until there is a market secured, there is not a huge amount of growth.”
“I see this increasing if we can get a few more malt houses within the state on the ground and in production,” McFarland said.
Michigan hit an all-time low in 2013 of 8,000 acres planted to barley after little to no production in the past 30 years, McFarland said.
Even so, “we have gotten 30 to 40 phone calls in the past few months from people wanting to learn more about growing barley.
There are two categories of barley, one grown for grain and one grown for malt.
“In Michigan, barley that is grown for malt is minuscule, not even 1,000 acres,” she said. “Now we are going to keep better records. I would speculate that there is a small increase in growth because at the moment we do not have a huge capacity. There is a lot of potential for growth, but not rapidly.”
If more malt houses were to open, barley could be beneficial to Michigan’s economy, McFarland said.
“With more malt houses comes more jobs and a better product,” McFarland said. “The economic benefit would trickle all the way down the production chain. We have over 150 breweries right now, so there is a lot of economic potential out there and it could potentially become a big financial gain”.
Some brewers already use locally grown barley for single batches of beer.
Graham said, “Certain brewers will do this as a novelty, but in those cases they do not have to be as sensitive to quality or cost. If they use it all the time in mainstream business, there is a question of competitive price and quality. We’re really early in the development of all of this, but I’m optimistic that it will develop.”
Danielle Woodward writes for Great Lakes Echo.