There is a band of rich, black loam running through the Canadian prairies. Its heart is in Alberta, Canada. Along the province’s highways, signs proudly proclaim that the barley growing on either side will become beer from some of the world’s best breweries. Though the breweries themselves are thousands of miles away, their logos dot the landscape.
If malt is the soul of beer, Alberta is the spirit feeding that soul.
Five generations of the Hilton family have been growing malting barley here since 1910. In 2017, the Hiltons started Origin Malting & Brewing, a craft malthouse and brewery in Strathmore, Alberta, home to about 14,000 people.
Less than two hours drive away, four generations of the Hamill family have been barley farmers since 1929. The Hamills started Red Shed Malting in 2015 and, three years later, opened Hamill Brothers Brewing, both located on the family farm.
The Hiltons and Hamills are true farm-to-glass brewers. In addition to their own malting and brewing ventures, they grow barley for Rahr Malting and Canada Malting, respectively. As such, both families have a privileged window on the health of the beer industry.
“From the closure of restaurants to the cancellation of events, and from the closure of our own [Origin] taproom, we knew there would be an impact on beer sales,” says Sterling Hilton, co-owner of Hilton Ventures. “We supply barley for Rahr and they slowed delivery of the 2019 barley crop, which affects cash flow and storage.” Thankfully, COVID-19 hit when about half of last year’s crop had already been purchased, providing the Hiltons sufficient cash to buy the inputs for the 2020 crop, although that’s partly because they offset the current oversupply by planting 30 percent less barley this year over their 12,500 acres. The Hiltons also hired extra staff, so nobody would feel compelled to work if unwell.
Meanwhile, the Hamills, with 2,100 acres, were spared any contract cuts by their partner Canada Malting, and have seeded as much barley as they usually would.
“We’re a small family farm,” says Matt Hamill, president of Red Shed Malting. “We use family labor and it’s pretty easy to be socially distanced in a tractor,” he adds, acknowledging that of roughly 4,900 malt barley farmers in Alberta, the Hamills are one of the lucky ones to be minimally impacted by COVID-19. The only change they have made is to reduce field trials of new barley varieties, which may delay their eventual adoption.
Alberta barley and malt have a global market, and that makes them vulnerable to economic downturns beyond North America. According to Bob Sutton, Rahr Malting’s vice president of sales and logistics, while beer has been considered “essential” during the pandemic in Canada and the United States, that was not the case in Mexico, South Africa, and parts of Asia. Also, an increase in consumer demand for beer from large commercial brewers (which contains less malt) means overall malt sales were down even more than beer sales. Bag malt (as opposed to truckloads or shipping containers of bulk malt), sold to small breweries and brewpubs, “fell off a cliff,” says Sutton.
Challenges aside, seeding for 2020 is now complete and early rain points toward a good crop. Both the Hilton and Hamill families are optimistic. Over the years their farms have endured good fortunes and bad. And if the black loam is a metaphor for the darkness of the past few months, hope for better days ahead has already sprouted from it.
Don Tse is a beer writer and consultant based in Calgary, Alberta.