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The Secret to Cheaper, Greener Local Beer

A Minnesota microbrewery has a secret ingredient that makes beer cheaper, cleaner, and more local.

Brewing beer is, in theory, fairly simple. A small farmer can grow all the barley and the hops needed on a little plot of land—it’s easier to grow than corn. And a microbrewery can pump out a few humble barrels of finished beer in anything from a spare room to sprawling warehouse.

But a step in the middle can stand in the way. Malting the barley—soaking, drying and then heating the grains to turn their starches into simple sugar ready to ferment—is more complicated. In fact, it can be something of a bottleneck for brewers like Dustin Brau, CEO of Brau Brothers Brewery in tiny Lucan, Minnesota.

“There aren’t a lot of maltsters, so what you get is a lot of breweries buying from a relatively [small] number of maltsters worldwide,” he says.

That homogenizes the final product, which is not a compliment from a booster of microbrews. Malting also drives up the carbon footprint needed to make the beer—and the limited number of malt suppliers ramps up the price, with Brau estimating that about 75 percent of his costs come in shipping and processing malt.

But Brau hopes that his brewery will rely less on the malting process in the future. His company has completed the first test batch of malt-less beer to prove they don’t need a costly middle-man for a great tasting brew. The small batch of a few hundred cases of Bohemian Soup beer, an Eastern European-style pilsner, went on sale around Minnesota and at brewers’ conventions.

The secret to making the raw barley beer is an enzyme additive called Ondea Pro. Normally, brewers rely on malting to produce natural enzymes that help turn starch in the grain into sugar, which the yeast is then able to chomp on during the all-important fermentation process—when the beer becomes beer. Ondea Pro allows brewers to skip malting (and the expense and energy costs that come with it) to make beer with unmalted grains.

"Even for a very efficient malting process, brewing with unmalted barley reduced the overall carbon footprint of beer production by eight percent," says Adam Monroe, President of Novozymes North America, the company that makes Ondea Pro. "We also documented a seven percent reduction in the amount of barley required to produce the same amount of beer, thereby improving land utilization and earnings."

This isn't going to close the hole in the ozone layer, but incremental efficiency should be recognized. The company estimates that if 10 percent of global beer production is converted to unmalted barley—a pie-in-the-sky dream at this point—the potential savings could equal more than 350,000 tons of CO2, about the same as taking 85,000 cars off the road.

For Brau, it's less C02 savings than local flavor that drew him to drop the malting process.

“One thing that intrigued us about raw barley beer,” Braus says, was “being able to pull barely straight from field and cut out the middle man.”

Typically, farmers to sell barley en masse to a maltster, who refines the product and sells it to brewers. Instead, Brau wants to buy direct from the farmers, saving money, reducing shipping costs, and ideally finding a few new flavors in the process. Absent the homogenizing influence of bulk-bought barley and centralized malting, each region’s unique barley would increase the variety of beers available.

One obstacle standing in the way: The farmers near Brau Brewing don’t grow much barley now, so Brau is growing it himself right next door, enough for a few hundred barrels next growing season. His production capacity for Bohemian Soup is limited largely by the dearth of local grains.

“We need to convince some local farmers to grow it, then we can expand,” he says.

That’s why he’s showing off his beer at brewing conventions and touting the process in the media. He needs other breweries to follow his lead and create enough demand that farmers have an incentive to switch from corn or other crops to beer grains. There’s a good financial reason for him to expect success.

“It could potentially make beer cheaper,” he says. Grain prices rose as much as thirty percent last year. “You’ve already seen [the price of beer] go up and you will probably see it going up even more.”

Brau makes a good case, pun intended.

Photo courtesy of Brau Brothers Brewing Company.

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