Malting Barley Production in Michigan (GMI035)

Because of the increasing demand for locally sourced ingredients in everything from the salads we eat to the beer we drink; barley, produced for malt, is being revisited as a potential crop for Michigan growers.


Malting Barley Production in Michigan


Barley – the most widely adapted cereal grain in the world – is an ancient crop that has been used for thousands of years for feed, food and production of beer. Its ability to thrive in adverse conditions makes it a suitable crop where other high-valued commodities such as corn, rice and wheat fail to yield. Although there is a wide spectrum of barley types, this text will focus on Hordeum vulagre L., the commonly cultivated species that dominates global production (Figure 1). The cultivation of barley, the fifth most-produced crop in the world, is widespread throughout North America and occurs on every other continent outside of Antarctica.

Worldwide, 125 million acres of barley were harvested in 2013. Only 3 million of those acres were harvested in the United States, which was nearly half of the 30- year national average (1984-2013, 5.9 million acres). U.S. acreage has steadily declined over this time period as barley competed for agricultural land with other high-value crops. Because of increased yields, however, domestic production of barley (in bushels) is down only 36 percent since 1984. In Michigan, only 10,000 acres of barley were harvested in 2013, with nearly all production going to feed markets. Nationally, 55 percent to 60 percent of barley goes to feed and is cracked, ground or rolled before being fed to livestock (Figure 2). Protein levels in barley grain range from 10 percent to 15 percent and are heavily affected by crop management. Aside from feed uses, 30 percent to 40 percent of U.S. barley is malted for brewing, 2 percent to 3 percent is used in other foods, and 5 percent is harvested for seed. Unique varieties of barley have been developed to support these end uses, although many characteristics of the grain remain consistent throughout the species. This publication will focus on specific varieties and cultural practices relating to barley produced for malt, or malting barley.

Barley’s wide geographic range and adaptability have led to consistent use of the grain in brewing for at least 5,000 years. Barley destined to become beer is put through a process called malting, which essentially germinates and then dries the grain to prevent further development. The germination process produces two enzymes – alphaamylase and beta-amylase – which hydrolyze starches to dextrins and fermentable sugars, necessary components of the brewing process.

A recent national trend toward sourcing food locally has impacted many sectors of food and agriculture, including beer production. The Michigan craft brewing industry has seen tremendous growth, with more than 150 craft breweries now operating in the state and more slated to open in the future (Figure 4). To meet consumer demand for a pure Michigan beer, brewers would like to procure grains and flavorings in-state but have difficulty sourcing quality malting barley. This need has prompted a reevaluation of barley production and malting in Michigan, with a specific focus on sustainable production practices and economic viability for Michigan farmers.


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