Beer Guy for May-June 2019

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

The Beer Guy shows us how Central Alberta’s superior barley creates taste of place in Alberta’s craft beer—with a little help from Hunter S Thompson.

Peter Bailey

Barley field

We were somewhere around Omaha on the edge of the prairie when the beer began to take hold. I was driving fast down the Interstate towards Kansas City past endless cornfields. My old friend turned toward me and said with disgust, “Corn? That’s not a crop.”

He’s right. When I was a kid my dad told me most corn is used to feed cows; I was bitterly disappointed. Stupid corn, I thought you were cool. My friend should know. He’s a worldly university professor now but he grew up in Amisk, a speck on the Alberta prairie south of Wainwright. They grow real crops there, Canada’s top three: wheat, canola and barley.

Yes, barley—hordeum vulgare—the first domesticated grain grown by humans. A wonder-grain, full of good stuff—vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients —and cholesterol-lowering fibre. Starting from Mesopotamia (present-day Syria and Iraq) thousands of years ago, it spread north to Europe and then conquered the world. Today barley is grown all over the globe, preferring temperate climates but thriving all the way from near the equator to the subarctic.

The soil and climate of the Canadian prairies are just about perfect for growing barley. Canada is the 6th biggest producer of barley in the world, growing about 9 million tonnes a year, with about half coming from Alberta. Barley may be a key reason for Alberta beef’s great taste and texture given that up to 80 per cent of Alberta production goes to feed livestock (sorry, corn, for my comments earlier). But Albertans also excel at producing malting barley, and exporting it around the world. I noticed pallets of malt from Alberta’s Rahr Malting while on a tour of Maui Brewing in Hawaii.

In 2018, scientists predicted a mixed future for global barley production. While higher temperatures, increased droughts and heat waves will mean reduced global production of barley (W. Xie et al. Nature Plants), University of Alberta water scientists (M. Faramafrzi et al. Science of the Total Environment) predict warmer temperatures and increased humidity from climate change will have a positive impact on Alberta barley production. An important caveat is the predicted increase in severe weather events with climate change. The 2018 Alberta barley crop was an excellent one standing in the field, but heavy September snow meant a steep erosion in quality, with much of the crop downgraded to feed barley from malting barley. Still, data from the U.S. Brewers Association shows that increasingly more barley comes from Canada, accounting for over 70 per cent of North American barley production in 2017. With predictions of increased production, the future for Alberta’s barley industry—and beer—looks bright.

As Big Rock founder Ed McNally showed us in the 1980s, the best thing to do with world-class Alberta barley is to use it ourselves: add value to the raw product. Dozens of Alberta craft brewers are doing just that, following in Ed’s footsteps and forging new ways forward. Particularly exciting are collaborations with new Alberta craft maltsters, Red Shed Malting and Origin Malting.

The field to glass concept, where beer drinkers can trace their beer back to the farm field the barley came from, holds a lot of promise for Alberta beer. There may come a day when beer drinkers look for Alberta malt in their beer, the way we do today for particular hops. To steal a slogan from the Alberta beef industry: “If it ain’t Alberta, it ain’t beer.”

Alberta Barley six-pack

Central Alberta is the epicentre of Alberta barley, with maltsters Red Shed in Penhold, Origin in Strathmore and Rahr in Alix, plus a six-pack of craft breweries and fields of barley as far as you can see. Take a road trip this summer or pick these beers up at better beer stores near you.

Click images to zoom

Alley Kat Prairie Pounder Penhold Pilsner
Alley Kat Penhold Pilsner

Alley Kat Prairie Pounder Penhold Pilsner, Edmonton

Alley Kat owner Neil Herbst is a leader in Alberta craft brewing, showing the way in using local products. Alley Kat was the first brewery to use Red Shed malt in a beer, as they do in this crisp, malty pilsner. It won a silver medal for All Alberta Malt Beer at the 2019 Alberta Beer Awards.

Siding 14 Pullman Pale Ale
Siding 14 Pullman Pale Ale

Siding 14 Pullman Pale Ale, Ponoka

Siding 14 is committed to the farm to glass concept. Here they use Newland two-row barley from Pridelands Grain Farm near Ponoka, which is then malted at Red Shed in Penhold and then used to brew at Siding 14 in Ponoka. A quaffable ale with a touch of fruity hop aroma and taste.

Blindman 24-2 Stock Ale, Lacombe

An unplugged, intensely local beer. The Blindman folks planted and harvested barley near Lacombe using a team of twelve Percheron horses from 24-2 Draft Horses. The barley was hauled to Red Shed where it was custom-malted and delivered to Blindman. They brewed a delicious old English style beer to showcase the malt.

Troubled Monk Golden Gaetz
Troubled Monk Golden Gaetz

Troubled Monk Golden Gaetz, Red Deer

In 2018 Troubled Monk undertook a bold experiment with their Golden Gaetz American blonde ale. They brewed three batches, all identical, with the same barley, but the barley for each batch was from three different regions in Alberta, all to test whether terroir (place) matters. And yes, they discovered where the barley was grown did affect the flavour of the beer.

Snake Lake Boat Bier, Sylvan Lake

Opening in 2018, Snake Lake quickly made a name for itself with quality beers, winning two gold and a silver at the 2019 Alberta Brewing Awards. Boat Bier is their take on an American lager, made with Origin Malting’s pilsner malt and dry hopped with Hallertau Blanc, Callista, and Loral hops.

Last Best Bock Chain, Calgary

Last Best uses blockchain technology to allow beer drinkers to trace their beer from field to glass. Scan a QR code on the can to access data, videos and maps on each ingredient and the process. The bock-style beer was made with Hamill Farms barley malted at Red Shed and Canada Malting and brewed at Last Best in Calgary.

Peter Bailey read a lot of Hunter S. Thompson in his youth. He’s on Twitter and Instagram as @Libarbarian.