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Growing a market thirst for new Canadian six-row malting barleys

With recent improvements in six-row malting barley varieties, Canada might be able to take a bigger share of the market for this type of barley. But first, potential buyers will need detailed information about the new six-row varieties to determine if these varieties meet their malting and brewing requirements.

November 30, 1999  By Carolyn King

With recent improvements in six-row malting barley varieties, Canada might be able to take a bigger share of the market for this type of barley. But first, potential buyers will need detailed information about the new six-row varieties to determine if these varieties meet their malting and brewing requirements.

That is where a new project by the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre (CMBTC) comes in. This three-year project will test Canada’s newly registered six-row malting barley varieties during a period of several years, and prepare a complete set of data on their malting and brewing characteristics. The data will be included (along with data on Canada’s two-row malting varieties) in the seminars and training sessions that Canada holds around the world to promote Canadian malting barley.

Potential markets
International malting barley markets, and Canada’s own malting barley exports, are dominated by two-row varieties because they have very good characteristics for malting and brewing. However, some companies prefer to use six-rows for the types of beer they brew. The established six-row markets are predominantly in the United States and the European Union (EU). “Around the world these days, there are more brewers that have been using two-row varieties but are looking for six-row varieties, as cost is a major factor and six-rows generally cost less,” says Rob McCaig, the CMBTC’s managing director and director of brewing.


According to McCaig, the improved Canadian varieties compare very favourably with six-rows from the EU, which is currently the main exporter of six-row malting barleys. “Our new varieties have improved agronomics with better disease resistance and higher yields. In malting characteristics, there are improvements in terms of the enzyme content, the protein content and the vigour of it in the malting process. And the varieties have met some of the wish list characteristics that brewers have had for six-rows for a while.”

McCaig notes at present almost all of Canada’s six-row malting barley exports go to the US, especially to Anheuser-Busch for Budweiser, but he sees potential in some overseas markets, too. “China would be one possibility. China takes six-row varieties from Europe, but right now none from Canada,” he says.

China’s rapidly growing beer consumption has driven up its imports of malting barley, and the country is a major buyer of Canadian two-row malting barley. “There are also some newer markets like Vietnam, which has significant growth potential. And there may be an opportunity in South and Central America; that’s a growing market where Canada is striving to increase market share. They take principally two-row, but they may be interested in doing trials with Canadian six-rows that would fit their needs for barley that they would malt down there, and for malt produced in Canada and sent to them,” says McCaig.

Testing is a key piece of the picture
“In the last couple of years (since about 2008), Canadian breeders have developed and registered some really good new six-row malting varieties, and we’ve lost some too,” notes McCaig. He explains that many new six-rows “die on the vine” because of a lack of data that potential buyers need. “There has been lots of information on their agronomics and malting qualities, but nothing on the brewing. That’s the missing component that the CMBTC provides.”

The CMBTC’s state-of-the-art, pilot-scale malting and brewing facilities allow it to collect the full range of data on the malting and brewing characteristics of barley samples, including small samples from breeders’ plots and variety development trials. McCaig says, “In the past, testing never got past the micro-malting stage where they are malting 250 grams. Our facilities can now malt up to 100 kilograms, which gives us commercial quality malt, and then we can brew a batch.”

The Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) malting barley program manager Doug Munro says, “My personal opinion is that new Canadian six-rows haven’t been getting tested enough.” He notes Anheuser-Busch has its own testing program to assess malting and brewing characteristics of new six-row varieties for its own particular needs, but he thinks more can be done with the new varieties to help with market development. “These new varieties that Rob will be looking at over the next three years will get a fair shake on analysis in the malt house and the brew house. You need that data when you go to a customer, and we don’t have the data to take to them right now,” says Munro.

Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Development Fund is contributing funding to the project, but much of the funding is from the CMBTC’s member agencies, which include the whole range of players in the industry from barley breeders to barley growers, grain handling companies, malting and brewing companies, agriculture departments of the three Prairie provinces, the CWB and the Canadian Grain Commission.

Potential grower opportunities
If the project results in more buyers for the new six-rows, these varieties could be good for farmers who already grow six-row malting varieties and possibly for some other growers as well. Malting barley usually has a market premium over feed barley, and the higher yields of these new varieties, would give good value for feed production in the years when they do not attain malting quality.

Traditionally most of Canada’s six-row malting barleys have been grown in eastern Saskatchewan and Manitoba because this region has a freight advantage for the US six-row malting barley market, explains CWB agronomist Mike Grenier. “Farmers in this region could grow two-row varieties and get similar yield performance to six-rows, but there are two issues: One is that most of the two-row barley is exported off the west coast, and this region is at a freight disadvantage for that. And the second thing is Fusarium coming into Manitoba, which hampers the ability of growers to get malting quality.”

Fusarium is the fungus that causes Fusarium head blight (FHB). This serious and difficult-to-control disease is a concern in both two- and six-row varieties. FHB can cause barley yield loss and grade loss, and can produce toxins that compromise seed quality for many uses, including malting and brewing. “So the new six-rows could be improvements for eastern Saskatchewan and western Manitoba along the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border. But as you come farther east into Manitoba, Fusarium is going to be a big problem for malting barley production,” says Grenier.

Munro thinks six-row malting barley from the eastern Saskatchewan-western Manitoba region will likely continue to mainly serve the North American market, partly because freight costs would be a hurdle for this region to serve overseas markets. As well, many of the Canadian six-row malting varieties are still bred specifically for the North American market.
He adds, “Anheuser-Busch still has malt plants in the North Dakota and Wisconsin region, and freight into those facilities is better from the Saskatchewan-Manitoba area, so they would prefer to source the barley from that area, and they prefer six-row barley so they are contracting six-row barley there.”
To provide a larger volume of six-rows for new overseas markets, Canadian six-row production might have to increase in some areas where two-row malting varieties are now grown, such as northwestern Saskatchewan and north-central Alberta. Whether that would be good for growers would depend on the prices for each type. Munro says, “Two-row traditionally has a market premium over six-row, mainly because two-rows generate more extract so the brewer gets more beer. Some of the newer six-rows have a little higher extract levels, but they haven’t caught up to the two-rows, and due to the physical nature of the kernel, the six-rows are not probably ever going to catch up.”
Munro emphasizes, “You’ve got to be careful when you’re marketing your six-rows not to cannibalize your own two-row market. You want your six-rows competing with six-row barleys from other countries, not your own two-rows.”
Munro says sales of six-row malting barleys to markets like the Caribbean, China and Vietnam would need to focus on certain types of beer. “Six-rows generally have higher enzymes than two-rows. These extra enzymes can help what is referred to as “high adjunct” brewers, where they use a little bit less malt but more adjunct and produce, I guess you could say, a less premium beer. There are lots of markets for that type of beer.”


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