From Stem to Stein: The Art of Turning Barley into Beer

By: Geoff Geddes

Remember Rumplestiltskin, the goblin who spun straw into gold? That was impressive, but for a real challenge, try transforming hard little kernels of barley into world-class beer.

In the Beginning…

Since beer is produced from malting barley, “success in the malthouse flows from success in the field.” So says Steve Goosen, Malt Barley Manager for Parrish and Heimbecker and Board Chairperson for the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre.

“The farmer must grow the best varieties of malting barley and manage his/her production from seeding to harvest. Good farming practices are critical for producing perfect beer.” Agreed, says Phil de Kemp, President of the Malting Industry Association of Canada.

“A huge challenge in producing high quality malting barley is relying on mother nature,”   said de Kemp. “Apart from having plump kernels, low to moderate protein and high germination, it must be free of disease, frost, heat damage and heavy staining.”

No small feat.


Much Ado about Malting

According to Andrew Bullied, a brewer with Calgary-based Village Brewery, “barley in its natural state is hard and full of protein, starch and enzymes that are important to malting and brewing. So malting begins with germination, breaking down proteins with enzymes and letting the brewer access the starch.”

Let the Brewing Begin

“To start brewing, we use the starches as our extracts,” said Bullied. “We mix them with hot water at 67°C to create a giant porridge called the mash.” [Dare we say, a “monster mash”?] After several steps, they conclude with fermentation, adding yeast to eat the sugars and create alcohol.


Making Magic

Unlike wine, which relies heavily on how the grapes are grown, beer is process driven. “We can make choices at every step to affect the final outcome,” said Bullied. “That allows for great creativity.” And with the number of imaginative brewers in our province, “it’s no wonder we have so much fantastic beer coming from Alberta.”

Finding their Voice

Great beer is a great starting point, but overall success requires teamwork and leadership. That’s where the Barley Council of Canada (BCC) comes in.

“We provide a national voice for the barley industry, spanning the value chain from producer to consumer,” said BCC Chair Brian Otto. Whether it’s innovation and research, best practices, trade or market development, “we work at every step of the process from coast to coast.”

They also ensure that everyone’s interests are addressed. “Big or small, you’re important to our industry and our future.” Since brewers are critical to that future, the BCC needed them on board.

“Prior to the wheat board disbanding, the big eastern brewers were disconnected from the industry out west,” said Pat Rowan, Manager at BARI-Canada Inc., the procurement arm for Anheuser-Busch. “I urged them to re-connect with the western market and the latest on varieties, pricing and such. They responded and we’re all on the same page now.”

The president of Beer Canada, which represents 90 per cent of our breweries, echoes that sentiment.

“Canada has a reputation for producing world class malting barley,” said Luke Harford, “and the BCC plays a large role in that.”

From growing to malting to brewing to marketing, the process of stem to stein has many moving parts, all critical to success.

So no offence to the creature that turned straw into gold. But set against the delicate art of making beer, the little guy had it easy.


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