August Schell Brewing Company will release a new helles in early April made entirely from locally grown barley. It’s the result of an encounter between brewmaster Jace Marti and two University of Minnesota researchers about three years ago.
“By chance, one of the lead researchers of the University of Minnesota [Dr. Jochum J. Wiersma, a small grain specialist in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics] was drinking at a bar. […] I was going around sampling beers,” Marti laughs, “and he kind of made a snide comment about our beers and American beers in general.”
A four-hour conversation ensued on the differences between American and European barley, and on which was better and why. Marti explained that Schell’s had not been using more “flavorful” European style barleys because they just were not available in the U.S.
The conversation prompted Schell’s to switch its base malt to one closer to a European type after it became readily available from Rahr Malting Co., and to take things a step further in 2015 and start growing their own barley just outside of New Ulm.
But first Marti had to find out if the plan was feasible. They turned to Rahr Malting Co. and the University of Minnesota to learn the differences between growing barley in southern Minnesota versus North Dakota and western Canada at a joint seminar between the parties.
After deciding on the Pinnacle variety (developed and released by the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station), which can handle Minnesota’s climate, Marti contracted with a farmer in the New Ulm area to plant 40 acres of barley.
It took a while before the farmer, a good friend of Marti’s, thought it was a sound investment.
“It was never really an option when corn was $9 a bushel,” Marti explains, “but when the prices fell out, he said, ‘Yeah, maybe we can find a few acres for you now.’”
Schell’s is also conducting field tests on growing barley near the now-open Starkeller taproom on land that the brewery owns. After three years of work, Marti is on his way to “bringing barley back to Minnesota,” he says.
“What we can do to bring it back locally is a big part for us,” Marti says. “Being able to grow—eventually, hopefully, a significant portion of our malt locally—would be wonderful. It could be a great thing that we work with local farmers on.”
How successful the brewery is in its mission depends on the willingness of farmers to grow high-quality barley, finding a company to malt it, and having a brewery that will purchase it. In spite of the challenges, Marti and the local farmers are taking solid steps in the right direction.
This year, Schell’s contracted 140 acres of barley from two farmers, which will make up about 16 percent of the grain used in all of Schell’s beer.
“It’s definitely a number we’d like to grow,” Marti says. The brewery recently purchased two new grain silos, freeing up a smaller one that will be used solely for the local barley.
Growing barley is tricky, however. Farmers are required to use different growing techniques than commodity crops like corn and soybeans, and the risk is greater with barley. (Nearly 10 years ago Schell’s tried growing barley, but the field was a total loss.) One difficulty is in perfecting the three-crop rotation method for higher yields. In addition to the rotation, reducing pesticides and herbicide usage, seeding, fertilizing, and knowing how to harvest the crop, are all new to the farmers and Marti.
“These first two years have definitely been a learning curve,” Marti says. Even though the first year saw a higher yield per acre, this year’s increase in acreage yielded more total bushels, which will be enough to brew a year round beer using just the local barley. The beer, Fort Road Helles, is set to be released in early April. Leftover barley will be added to Schell’s regular beer lineup.
“Hopefully that becomes a nice selling beer for us, and that’s something we can always hang our hat on, that this is 100-percent locally grown barley,” Marti says, adding that the name comes from one of the farm’s location on Fort Road.
“What is great is that it makes a beautiful, local, full circle,” Marti adds. “The Gieseke family grows the barley that we use to brew our beer with, [and] they get the spent grain back to feed their cows.” The plan is to sell the beef to local restaurants, pairing the dishes made from the beef with Schell’s beers. “It’s kind of our way of being part of the slow food movement, but also striving to deepen our roots in our local community, and helping to make Schell’s something more than just beer.”
In order to use the local barley, Schell’s teamed with Briess Malt & Ingredients Co. to make a Pilsner malt customized for the helles. Marti explained that Pinnacle is low in protein, and a low-modification barley, meaning the enzymes inside the grain work better with lager or malt forward beers like a helles. “That lower modification lends itself to more body and mouthfeel,” Marti explains.
The plan is for all of Schell’s beers to eventually use a small percentage of locally grown barley, signaling a bright future for barley in southern Minnesota, and a commitment to the investment Schell’s has made in its pursuit.
“It’s really hard to say year to year how much we’re going to get, but that’s part of farming,” Marti says. “Being the third year, we should have a lot better idea on what to do.”
With the release of Fort Road Helles, people will be able to taste just how far Marti and Schell’s have come with their local barley, and experience another step forward in Minnesota craft beer.