Weird weather, supply chain issues brew up business for Ontario barley growers

Dean Bowes sizes up one of the large metallic bins in his barn, packed with barley destined for Ottawa-area beermakers.

“We’re roasting it just a little bit, just to bring out some of the deeper colours and the richer flavours,” he explains, his voice competing with loud fans whirring in the background.

“We have a brewer coming to pick some up next week. We have a few folks stopping by on the weekend, some homebrewers. Yeah, we’re busy.”

As the co-owner of Mississippi Mills Malting near Pakenham, Ont., Bowes is a bit of a rarity in Ontario. He grows malting barley, a crop more associated with the sprawling fields that blanket Canada’s prairie provinces.

But with western Canadian harvests decimated by drought-like conditions in 2021, and general COVID-19 supply chain issues not helping, Bowes says there’s an opportunity for Ontario growers to capitalize on the needs of the province’s brewers and distillers.

It’s a demand, he says, that existed pre-pandemic — but is now even more relevant.

“Even coming into this, the brewers said, ‘We’d like to use more local product,'” Bowes said. “It’s just not [been] available.”

A major crop — out west

Barley, for those who don’t know, is an ancient cereal grain that forms the backbone of beer and whiskey.

But before it becomes part of that pilsner or double IPA, it first needs to be malted — steeped in water so it sprouts, generating enzymes to convert its starch into fermentable sugars, and then dried and roasted.

And Canadian farmers grow a lot of it: nearly seven million tonnes last year, according to November data from Statistics Canada. Normally that number would be even higher, but the scorching heat that hit the prairies left the 2021 harvest 35 per cent smaller than the year before.

That’s led prices to rise — and created opportunities for Ontario farmers like Bowes.

What’s behind the local malt boom in eastern Ontario

Long a staple of western Canada and U.S. agriculture, several Ontario companies are now growing and malting barley, a grain that forms the backbone of beer and whiskey. Dean Bowes, co-owner of Mississippi Mills Malting, says local brewers have jumped at the chance to buy local. 0:54

At Mississippi Mills, they charge $1.87 for a kilogram of standard barley malt, Bowes said. 

That’s still about 50 cents more than what a major producer would offer, but Bowes cites other advantages: they sell in smaller quantities, ship over shorter distances, and allow brewers and distillers to market themselves to customers wanting to spend their money on local businesses.

For Fariborz Behzadi, co-owner of Ottawa’s Bicycle Brewing Company, those sorts of incentives, combined with the broader insecurity in the agricultural sector, made switching suppliers a much easier call.

“We’d been thinking about it,” said Behzadi, who’s been using barley from Mississippi Mills and another local maltster in nearby Arnprior, Ont., in a series of recent beers that trumpet their eastern Ontario origins on their labels.

“It’s local. It travels less to come to our brewery,” he said. “We have developed new recipes for new beers using the new malts that we get, or substituted some of the regular base malts [in our previous beers].”

Fariborz Behzadi, co-owner of Bicycle Craft Brewery in Ottawa, holds one of the beers they recently brewed with eastern Ontario malts. Several of the province’s maltsters say they’re busier than ever as COVID-19 supply issues force brewers and distillers to seek out locally grown barley. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

‘Ton of potential’

It’s hard to tease apart how much of the current demand is driven by factors like the bad 2021 harvest, or simply a broader interest in using products that are closer to home, said Devin Huffman, part-owner at Barn Owl Malting in Belleville, Ont.

But the pandemic has spurred demand, Huffman says — especially in the unsettled early days when it wasn’t always clear how smaller, independent businesses were going to pull through.

“There was so much uncertainty. And the customer base for the brewers was so supportive, and made efforts to continue to support local beer producers, despite the challenges,” said Huffman.

“I feel like that sort of spurred, in the brewers, a reconsideration of their local supply chain … we saw a bunch of new inquiries early on.”

Like Bowes, Huffman is doing brisk business: about a half-dozen breweries buy up the lion’s share of Barn Owl’s barley, he says, with another dozen collaborating on seasonal beers and one-offs. He’s so busy that he can barely accept any new orders.

Bowes, meanwhile, says Mississippi Mills is selling barley to roughly 20 nearby brewers and two distilleries. They’re sold out, he says, nearly all the time.

While Ontario won’t ever supplant Western Canada as the country’s beerbasket, Bowes said times are good for his fledgling industry — and should stay that way.

“As craft maltsters, we’re just such a drop in the bucket in terms of what our local brewers use. We would never be able to fill that complete supply,” he said. “[But there’s a] ton of market potential.”

Mississippi Mills Malting co-owner Dean Bowes sits on bags of barley inside his barn. He’s selling to about 20 local brewers and distilleries, and says his industry has a ‘ton of potential.’ (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

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