We’re all pretty familiar with how the growing craft beer industry is helping boost the economy. Almost 2000 breweries have opened in the past ten years, and the number of breweries is at the highest it’s been in 125 years. That’s a lot of beer—and a lot of jobs. But the craft beer boom is having an effect in some less-expected ways, too, like on the farms.
Craft beers call for much more malt per barrel than the standard American light lager—between three and seven times as much, in fact. In 2014, U.S craft brewers were using 25% of the malts consumed by the brewing industry, even though they were only producing 7.8% of the total beer volume. And this demand is beginning to affect the way brewers—and farmers—are thinking about the barley supply.
Malt comes from cereal grains—most commonly barley—that have been germinated and dried (malted) in order to create fermentable sugars. For most of the past century, the amount and type of barley grown for malting and brewing had been based on the demands of lager-style production. From the 1930s to 1980s, when adjunct light lagers were the dominant beer style, most barley malt varieties grown in the U.S. were chosen for their lighter body and flavor and ability to accept adjuncts like corn or rice. As beer drinkers begin demanding more complicated flavors, though, more attention is being paid to the types of barley malts that suit craft beer, such as two-row varieties that lend a fuller body and sweeter flavor.
The hops crops are also seeing a huge boost in both diversity and demand. Hops add bitterness and help tone down some of the sweetness of the malts, and they play an integral role in the character of the beer. And we all know, craft beer is full of character! The demand for hoppy beer pushed the hops prices to almost double over the past decade, from an average of $1.94 a pound in 2005 to $3.83 by 2015.
And as hops prices rise, so does interest in growing. According to a report in Fortune, farmers in fourteen different states began growing hops just last year for the first time, which could lead to some surprising new flavors. We’re already seeing new hops being intentionally bred for their aromas and flavor profile, and expanding the terrain of hops crops will lead to even more new hybrids—and brewing possibilities!
Back to the Land
Beer is, and always has been, an agricultural product at its core. Air and soil, water and plants and the wondrous yeast (and brewer) work together to create the lightest lager and the heaviest stout—and everything in between. As spring approaches and the green things start popping up, consider having your next beer outside—where it all begins.
For the curious, Mendocino Brewing gets most of their hops from HopUnion, and the malts come from Great Western Malting.
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