Virginia Beer Boom Tries To Break Through With Virginia Barley

Dec 29, 2017

Virginia’s beer industry is booming and more farmers are delving into the raw ingredients needed to meet the high demand. So why is finding a beer brewed from all-Virginia ingredients still tough? 

Up until a few years ago, brewer’s grade barley, a key ingredient in beer, wasn’t able to grow in Virginia because the climate is too wet. Scientists at Virginia Tech’s barley breeding program have spent decades developing a strain that can thrive here. Thanks to Virginia’s booming beer industry, this strain has emerged as a high-value crop for farmers.

Dan Brann is a pumpkin farmer in Christiansburg who’s been growing malt barley for three years. “We started with seven acres. Next year, we grew twenty acres. Next year, 35 acres and this year we’re gonna have 45-50 acres.” 

Growth has been slow but steady, hampered by the limited number of malt houses in the state.  A malt house is where raw grain is converted to malt for beer. “I couldn’t respond to the expansion of breweries until I had a place to sell it to be malted,” Brann said

Most malt houses that have opened supply craft malt to mostly smaller brewers in the region. But the recent opening of Proximity Malt in Delaware signals sufficient capacity to supply local malt to even large scale regional brewers. It’s the largest such facility on the eastern seaboard, situated in the heart of where this new barley is taking off.  “We also think there is a good market for using  more local barley to sell to local malt users so we think we’ll be able to segregate Virginia barley, malt it, and sell it to Virginia brewers,” Proximity spokesperson Amy Germershausen said.

So all the players, farmers, maltsters, brewers, are here. But the infrastructure still hasn’t reached a tipping point, says Wade Thomason, a professor and grain scientist at Virginia Tech who helped develop the new strain of barley. “I think we’re poised but we’re sort of sitting there with a chicken and egg scenario. The brewers could use more Virginia barley if we can produce it with good quality and our farmers could grow quite a lot more if those two parties can get together and figure out how to make the logistics work.”

Thomason says he’d like to see the state do more to nudge the economic development along. Cassidy Rasnick, deputy secretary of the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, says Virginia is working on it.“We’re trying to do everything we can to remove the roadblocks.”

Rasnick says the Virginia Agricultural Council continues to partial fund barley research at Virginia Tech. There are also outreach efforts to connect more brewers to farmers. And her agency has successfully wooed four malt houses to the state in the last couple of years.

That's an opportunity for the customer to ask, well, why is this one 25 cents more? It's an opportunity to tell them it's produced with Virginia grown barley and hops.

Such efforts point to a day when more Virginia beer drinkers can buy a local brew made with local malt.  It’s already happening but on a small scale. Thomason talked to one brewer who sells beer made from Virginia barley for twenty five cents more than a regular pint. “That’s an opportunity for the customer to ask, well, why is this one 25 cents more? It’s an opportunity to tell them it’s produced with Virginia grown barley and hops. He said it’s magic," Thomason said. "So I feel like we’re right on the edge of putting it all together. “

And that could add another economic layer to Virginia’s beer boom.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.