One of the world’s oldest cultivated grains, barley used to be common in fields throughout the Lone Star state—until higher-yielding, higher-commodity crops, such as corn and sorghum, pushed it aside. Today, there are only a handful of Texas farmers who bother with barley, and just three small facilities in the state where it can be processed into a useable form for brewing.
Blacklands Malt in Leander, Texas, was the first. Surprised to discover the industry had all but died out in the state, founder Brandon Ade partnered with researchers at Texas A&M University in 2012 to identify and develop agronomically viable barley strains that would suit both farmers’ and brewers’ needs. In the meantime, he sourced Colorado-grown grains to launch his operation.
Says Ade, “As beer gets more crowded, how do you set yourself apart? Hops has taken the spotlight as a way of doing that, and I believe malt will be next. I wanted to take this big, faceless malt industry and help humanize it—and do it on a regional scale so brewers can feel a connection to it.”
According to the Craft Maltsters Guild, which includes approximately 45 malt houses throughout the United States and Canada in its membership, these are independently owned operations that produce between five and 10,000 metric tons of malt annually using grains that, at least half of which, are grown within a 500-mile radius of the malt house.
Because they work in such small batches, craft maltsters can customize their process to bring out different sugars, colors, and other characteristics a brewer may be after in a particular beer. And because the grains aren’t blended from multiple sources, there’s often a distinct terroir that comes through in the finished product.
For these reasons and more, many local brewers and distillers are willing to at least experiment with craft-malted grains. Convincing local farmers to plant barley in large quantities, Ade has found, takes considerably more effort.
Malt barley is a delicate crop that requires careful attention throughout its growing cycle. Maltsters also have exacting specifications to produce a superior product.
“If you grow 1,000 acres, assume you’re going to lose at least half,” Ade says. Late 2016 “was the first year we had a field come in that was of useable quality—and that’s since 2012. The challenges are real.”
That crop found its way into Jester King’s Part & Parcel, the first modern beer made entirely with Texas-grown and malted grains. Some may question devoting the time and effort to revive an agricultural product locally when it’s readily available elsewhere, but for Ade, the farmers, brewers, and everyone else involved, the beer validates everything they’ve been working toward.
“It’s a vision of working with the land around us, promoting the land, the people, and the community,” Ade says. “Maybe some might look at is as a foolish recreation of the wheel, but this is how anything great starts. You have an idea and you actually do it, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.”