Malting barley: A united supply chain, from ear to beer

Fifteen percent of global beer produc­tion comes from French winter or spring malting barley. From the producer to the brewer, the entire supply chain remains committed to main­taining perfor­mance.

France is unusual in that it produces as much winter barley as spring barley, both are intended for beer produc­tion, and totals nearly 4m tonnes annu­ally. This is an asset on the global market because these diver­si­fied sources give brewers options for specific types of malt for different beers. Malt from six-row winter barley is suit­able for producing abbey type beers and lagers. This malt is versa­tile and is often mixed with two-row spring barley malt, which is consid­ered to be better quality by brewers but shows a higher vari­ability in its brewing prop­er­ties. From the producers’ point of view, the different types of malting barley are also inter­esting.

Two-row spring barley and six-row winter barley: Growing these two malting types allows Julien Doussineau to spread out sowing from autumn to spring.

Six-row winter barleys provide the best yield, but while a little less produc­tive, spring barleys are often valued higher due to their quality, grain size, specific weight, malt extract, germi­na­tion speed and friability. As a result, the price paid for spring barley is often £13-17/t (€15-20/t) higher than winter barley.

Three types of barley on the same farm

Some farmers grow both winter and spring vari­eties. In Eure-et-Loir, Julien Doussineau has chosen a combined approach. “I have three sowing windows: Early autumn for winter barley, November for some spring barley and February or March for tradi­tional spring barley,” he explains. “It makes sense to include these three crops in my rota­tion because they are harvested both before and after the wheat, which allows a smooth organ­i­sa­tion of the harvest while spreading the risks.” 

Three crops of malting barley in my crop rota­tion allow me to organise the harvest and spread the risk.

Julien Doussineau

This is because some crops prove riskier in terms of estab­lish­ment. “On average, spring barley sown in winter is damaged by frost once every 10 years. In return, I get 1.5t/ha more yield than conven­tional spring sowing. I still grow spring barley tradi­tion­ally – sowing in February, because it is a crop that is econom­ical in inputs and allows us to break the cycle of resis­tant weeds, in partic­ular ryegrass.”

Dominique Vequiaud, barley breeder at Secobra Research, at the Bois-Henry centre in Yvelines.

Julien farms nearly 600ha on a family farm in Boisville Saint Père (Eure-et-Loir) where he grows 10 different crops – his wells and irri­ga­tion system allow him to safe­guard yields. “I have the right condi­tions to produce malting barley despite adverse weather. I am currently sowing four winter and spring malting vari­eties, and I also grow 35ha of four types of barley for seed.” The farm is well equipped for drying and storage, without which Julien wouldn’t be able to fulfil multiple contracts.

Growth cham­bers with arti­fi­cial light make it possible to speed up the breeding process.

Further east in Burgundy, in a conti­nental climate, winter malting barley occu­pies a good place in crop rota­tions. It allows for early autumn sowing, and harvest occurs before drought sets in. “Six-row winter barleys have an advan­tage in the context of climate change,” notes Mickael Mimeau of the co-oper­a­tive Alliance BFC.

“It is one of the species most tolerant to the water short­ages in the Burgundy-France region.” Winter barley yields are close to winter wheat yields, but with less vari­ability. And compared to spring barley, the protein content is more stable. Even if the grain size of six-row winter vari­eties is lower, it is getting closer to that of spring barley, thanks to vari­etal progress.

It is for this reason that the Burgundy region today harvests an eighth of France’s winter barley. The latter has over­taken spring barley, which is less produc­tive and more vulner­able to drought. “Winter barley offers agro­nomic advan­tages in the crop rota­tion in areas with low poten­tial,” says Geof­froy Oudoire, an Arvalis (research insti­tute) engi­neer.

“More­over, barley has hulled grains, which partly protects them from pests and disease. Cont­a­m­i­na­tion is often lower than in other cereals.” In this central-eastern region, the prof­itability of barley remains closely linked to subsi­dies. “Prices paid to farmers have been increasing for two seasons, but we should keep a close eye on the margins this year, in the context of a sharp increase in inputs,” notes Geof­froy. 

Effec­tive selec­tion for six-row barleys

Although six-row winter barley vari­eties are consid­ered to be the all-purpose barley for malting and brewing, they are still improving. Selec­tion is improving char­ac­ter­is­tics like grain size and malt extract. Research, partic­u­larly in genomics, has accel­er­ated genetic progress, with vari­etal selec­tion time halved in 20 years.

Our selec­tion has drawn genes of interest from exotic popu­la­tion vari­eties. 

Dominique Vequaud

On average, winter barley yields have increased by more than 0.1t/ha per year. Above all, disease resis­tance has gone up a notch. This was neces­sary following the ban on seed treat­ments using neon­i­coti­noid insec­ti­cides, which protected barley from barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV), trans­mitted by aphids. At a time when autumns are increas­ingly mild and favourable to aphids.

One of the objec­tives of Secobra Recherches is to select compact vari­eties with a short 100-day growth cycle and low nitrogen require­ments.

“Genetics remains the ideal solu­tion”, says Florent Cornut, sales director at the seed company Secobra Recherches. “Our selec­tion has drawn genes of interest to combat BYDV from exotic popu­la­tion vari­eties. Since 2019, 100% of the winter barleys that we submit for regis­tra­tion in France are BYDV-tolerant.” 

As far as other pests are concerned, solu­tions are being deployed. “We have found a new source of resis­tance to rhyn­chospo­rium, a major barley disease, as well as sources of resis­tance to Wheat Dwarf Virus,” reports Dominique Vequaud, a barley breeder at Secobra Recherches. The other chal­lenge for seed compa­nies now involves offering local vari­eties to produce local beer in micro-brew­eries.

“And finally, we want to develop vari­eties requiring less nitrogen input, to reduce the carbon foot­print of this crop,” adds Gilles Fouquin, director at Secobra Research. In the case of spring barley, one of the options would be to select vari­eties with a short 100-day growing cycle, with dwarf growth and low nitrogen require­ments. “By changing the shape and growth rate of the plant, we are hopeful of being able to create barleys adapted to the new constraints.” 

Reducing emis­sions

The entire barley and wheat malting sector is addressing other envi­ron­mental chal­lenges. And the first step is to improve prox­imity. “We want to encourage short supply chains for barley and hops. Given that 90% of French people today live less than 20 minutes from a brewery, we must develop the produc­tion of malting barley locally throughout France,” say industry repre­sen­ta­tives.

The other chal­lenge for malt­sters and brewers lies in reducing CO2 emis­sions and waste­water discharges. For several years, manu­fac­turers have been committed to opti­mising resources, partic­u­larly energy and water. An envi­ron­mental certi­fi­ca­tion process has already made it possible to reduce water consump­tion by 20%.

Barley crops sown in spring are more affected by periods of spring drought than winter barley.
Winter barley is sown in the autumn and harvested earlier.

Malt­sters have committed to going further, with a new objec­tive of reducing water consump­tion by 25% by 2030. The target for brewers is by 40%, and already, new brew­eries have inte­grated water recy­cling into their systems. Ulti­mately, brewers are aiming higher, with the goal of achieving zero waste produc­tion by recov­ering all beer co-prod­ucts like yeast and spent grains, while working on 100% recy­clable pack­aging and cans.