Know End User Specs When Growing for Malt

July 18, 2019

Does your malting barley have the right characteristics to meet market needs? Whether your crop is staying in Canada or destined to go beyond our borders, the answer depends on the end user’s recipe.

As Peter Watts, Managing Director at the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre (CMBTC), explains, a better way to look at quality specifications is not domestic versus export markets but macro versus craft brewing.

“Each segment looks for different characteristics from their barley malt given the different styles of brewing,” Watts says. “Both the craft (all-malt) and macro (mainstream) market segments are well established within Canada and the international marketplace.”

Quality requirements for craft versus macro brewing

The key difference between the two segments is that the craft sector tends to use 100 percent barley malt in their brewing recipes while the macro brewers use a combination of barley malt and adjuncts such as corn, corn derivatives or rice.

So, what does this mean for the crop you’re producing? Watts explains that a malting company sourcing for the craft sector prefers barley with lower protein content. Many producers will have that requirement built right into their contracts.

“For example, they’d specify 10 to 11.5 percent protein,” he says. “On the other hand, a malting company sourcing for the macro brewing sector looks for protein levels in the 11 to 13 percent range.”

China demands higher protein levels

According to Watts, on average, malting barley protein levels have been declining in Western Canada. This isn’t a surprise – historically, the message conveyed to producers was ‘don’t let your protein levels get too high.’ New varieties that are higher yielding and production practices such as nitrogen fertilizer application have contributed to lowering protein levels. (You can find management tips in this Malt Masters article.)

“The pendulum has now kind of swung the other way,” Watts says. Now the message is ‘don’t go too low’ – especially given the demands of China, which is Canada’s number one export market. It accounts for 75 to 80 percent of all malt barley exports.

“China prefers higher protein levels because they’re primarily a macro brewing country. They like protein levels at 12 to 13 percent, which is even higher than the macro industry in North America,” Watts explains.

“In the last two years, Canadian grain companies have been telling producers ‘if you’re growing malting barley without a contract, then your malting barley is probably going to go to China – and China wants higher protein levels’.”

Pay close attention to quality

Of course, China is not the only country where Canadian malting barley is in demand. The United States is the next largest export market.

“Our exports to the United States tend to vary from year to year, depending on their own production domestically,” Watts says. “Japan is the third largest market for Canadian malting barley, although most of that barley is actually destined for the barley tea market. Small amounts of Canadian malting barley also make their way into markets in South Asia like South Korea, and into Latin American markets such as Mexico.”

Regardless of where your malting barley is headed, every market wants good quality. Even maturity, plump kernels, low levels of peeled and broken kernels, and disease mitigation are all factors that producers need to keep top of mind. “These are all things producers can do to help improve the quality and increase their chances of being selected for malt barley,” Watts says.

Barley sector is strong

Fortunately, all is not lost for producers who don’t make malt in 2019.

“The feed grain market has been very strong this year. Producers are seeing really good prices for feed barley,” Watts says. “So, they can grow malting barley and be safe in the knowledge that even if it doesn’t make malt, they’ll have an outlet for their barley in the feed sector with relatively good prices.”

What resources are available to help those who want to learn more about growing malt for different markets? Watts recommends reaching out to your local grain elevator. “Producers can talk to reps at the grain elevator to find out what they’re looking for in terms of quality specifications. They can always call the CMBTC and talk to me. A provincial extension specialist can also provide producers with guidance.”

Thanks to resources like Watts and others willing to help, producers won’t be left wondering if their crop will meet quality specifications for any market.

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