Thursday, May 13, 2010

Growing Malting Barley at Home: Back Story

I have been gardening for twenty years and homebrewing for a little over a year (not counting a brief and mainly unsuccessful effort in the late 1980s). I am very interested in mingling my two hobbies by growing barley at home to malt and make into beer. My goal is to grow and malt barley,

grow hops, use our well water, and buy yeast to make a truly estate bottled beer that has terrior. I am not especially concerned about consistency, but want to brew quantities of drinkable beer.

I am strictly a gardener and not a farmer. I have two locations where I can grow barley -- my backyard in Northern Virginia (NOVA)and our vacation house on the Eastern Shore of Virginia (ESVA), about 250 feet from the Chesapeake Bay. I can grow about 700 square feet of barley in Northern Virginia and up to a quarter acre on the Eastern Shore (+/- 10,000 square feet). I also have hops planted -- second year Cascade, Nuigget and Wilamette in NOVA and first year Cascade and Northern Brewer on the ESVA.

In our area, farmers grow winter wheat. They plant the wheat in October, it grows a bit in the fall, does not grow during the coldest months (like your lawn) then springs to life in March and is ready for harvest in June. As far as I know, very little or no winter barley is grown in my area, but it is safe to assume that winter barley is the best suited for our area.

I began in 2008 by trying to locate suitable two row winter malting barley. This was harder than I anticipated -- most malting barley grown in the US is spring grown. I finally was able to obtain 10 kilos of a two row winter malting barley called WINTMALT from a company in Germany that sent it to me free. I have subsequently read that WINTMALT did not make the grade as a new and better malting barley in Europe and has been discontinued (it was evidently fine, just not better than the varieties being currently grown). Nevertheless, it is the seed I have and the seed I will use.

To make a long story shory and bring the blog up to the present day, I planted WINTMALT in both locations in the fall of 2008. I had terrible problems with my large plot on the Eastern Shore and got zero barley. The barley was smothered by very persistent vetch. Fortunately, despite a very wet spring which resulted in extensive lodging (the barley stalks falling over and some of the heads getting sodden and ruined), I did get seed from a 15x15 plot I planted in Northern Virginin and my friend Buck grew another small plot and gave me the resulting seed. So, in 2008-2009 I managed to turn the 10 kilos of barley seed into about 3 kilos of barley seed! But I learned a lot.

In the Fall of 2009 I tried again. I planted a 15'x45' plot in NOVA and a 20'x25' plot on the ESVA. They overwintered very well and today, as I look out the window at the NOVA plot, I see a tiny field of wispy, waving green barley heads. If all goes well I should be able to harvest (with scissors and a 5 gallon bucket) in June in both locations.