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Growing barley for shochu

Cheers! By making a few small changes in production practices, growers may be able to grow barley for the higher value shochu market, a popular liquor drink in Japan.

October 20, 2009  By Carolyn King

Cheers! By making a few small changes in production practices, growers may be able to grow barley for the higher value shochu market, a popular liquor drink in Japan. “The big advantage of this market opportunity is that growers are able to increase their revenue per acre without adding any additional risk or cost in inputs,” explains Bill Chapman of Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. Chapman is working with the Alberta Barley Commission and Rahr Malting Canada Ltd. to develop a value chain to move Alberta barley into the shochu market.

Shochu, a Japanese liquor drink, is being made from Prairie barley.
Photo courtesy of Bill Chapman.


“The main adjustment to be successful in the shochu market is just changing your seeding dates. So you put your canola and wheat in your back pocket for a couple of days, go seed your shochu barley and then be prepared to take it off early and either aerate it or dry it,” says Chapman, noting that early seeding is a practice already followed by many successful malt barley growers. “Early seeding allows you to start harvesting in mid-August so you miss any rain or moisture that would cause quality deterioration or sprouting.”


AC Metcalfe, a two-row malt barley variety well known in Alberta, is recommended for the shochu market because it can meet the market’s requirements for kernel hardness, high starch content and quality. “Compared to malt barley, shochu barley is a little more forgiving on some of the quality attributes. Probably the most important attribute for shochu barley is the hardness of the kernel. To make shochu, the barley is pearled, which involves grinding the kernel down about a third. If the kernel has the proper hardness to it, it won’t crumble during pearling,” says Kevin Sich, grain procurement manager with Rahr.

Chapman explains that pearling removes a lot of the tocopherols and other compounds in the hull before the barley is fermented and distilled to make shochu. He notes, “The shochu market wants a kernel hardness in the 58 to 60 range, which is a medium softness, so the kernel doesn’t crack and break up during pearling because you just don’t get the alcohol yield out of broken kernels.”

Other good practices for success in either the shochu or malt markets include using Certified seed, optimum seeding rates and balanced fertility.

Crop rotation is also important. “The guys that are successful consistently in the shochu and malt markets have uniform land and they follow a rotation like planting their malt or shochu quality barley on canola stubble so they can reduce disease problems and control the weed spectrum much more readily. Some growers have grown barley on barley, but unless it’s the same variety you run the risk of not making the specs because they are very strict on purity,” says Chapman.

Along with harvesting early, it is best to straight combine barley for the shochu market at 18 to 20 percent moisture content and then aerate it to 13.5 percent to reduce cracking and peeling of the kernels. The barley should be stored in separate bins.

Sich will work with farmers interested in growing shochu barley to explain the practices required to meet the needs of this specialty export market. As for many other speciality markets, good recordkeeping is recommended. “Not all the Japanese market is demanding traceability but they are asking for it more and more every year. For any producer who deals with us on production contracts, we do have it in the contracts that we may ask for their traceability, like their crop records on it,” says Sich.

Chapman adds, “I don’t have a problem with full traceability. I think some farmers figure that just because they grow a good product, the markets are going to accept it. Well, not any more. The consumer has some interesting food quality standards and requirements, and if we want to be competitive in these export markets, we need to step up a bit. The farmers who are willing to do that are the ones who are capturing these new markets.”

According to Chapman, Japanese shochu companies are interested in Alberta barley because Western Canadian barley-growing areas typically have the right climate to achieve shochu quality. He says, “Barley for shochu doesn’t like the extremes of hot and dry; it likes the moderate temperatures and cooler nights.”

Shochu barley can be grown in malt barley areas, like Three Hills, Drumheller and Olds. Sich adds, “Sometimes when a producer’s barley doesn’t fall into malt quality, it will fall into the shochu, so it’s a nice secondary market.”

And shochu barley can also be grown in other barley-growing areas, like the Edmonton region, if growers follow the early seeding recommendation. Chapman notes, “A lot of guys along the Highway 2 corridor in Alberta focus on CPS wheat and canola. I think we need to expand our opportunities and look at some other options like these premium grain markets.”

Although Canada’s portion of the shochu barley market is still fairly small, it is growing; in 2008 Rahr exported 10,000 tonnes of barley for the shochu market. “It is a niche market, but for the guys who are successful in growing shochu barley, it becomes a really important market when you consider your return per acre,” emphasizes Chapman.

“Shochu barley is competitively priced with malt barley,” he explains, and in a good year it can provide great returns. “In 2008, which was an exceptionally good year for barley, you could make more money per acre on malt or shochu barley than on some of the more expensive crops in terms of crop inputs, like canola. We had growers growing between 100 and 125 bushels of barley per acre consistently, and the price they were getting at the time for the premium malt was $6.75. So at 125 bu/ac, they were grossing $843 an acre, less transportation costs and handling fees locally. That’s pretty sweet when you consider that your input costs for barley are probably in the neighbourhood of $80 per acre less than canola.”


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