A local brewery harvested a new batch of locally grown barley in the fall, making it the first beer maker to also grow the key ingredient in the Lower Mainland.
But one big challenge lies ahead for those hoping for much more local beer made with completely local ingredients.
Barley – the largest single ingredient in beer – has been rarely, if ever, grown in the Fraser Valley. The cost of land and the amount of barley needed to produce large batches of beer have led local farmers to source the key grain from the prairies.
But over the last two years, Field House Brewing owner Josh Vanderheide has questioned that conventional wisdom when it comes to producing what he calls the “heart and soul” of beer.
“We are in such a great growing area. Why isn’t anybody growing barley?” Vanderheide and his colleagues asked.
To put that question to the test, Field House first teamed with Vitala Foods to grow five acres of the grain in 2018.
The resulting crop was successful, with a dry summer boosting the yield. That barley was used to brew Field House’s Classic Farm Pilsner, Hazy Field IPA, a Strawberry Tart Saison, and Raspberry & Fennel Sour Weise – the latter two made in partnership with the BC Strawberry and Raspberry associations, respectively.
Vanderheide upped his plans in 2019, and moved with his family to a small five-acre Matsqui farm with largely untilled fields. There, a two-and-a-half acre grassy field was replanted with barley. It produced another productive crop.
(Field House received a $25,000 Agricultural Enhancement Grant for the project from the Abbotsford Community Foundation. A bee apiary was established, and the fruit from a dormant orchard were harvested. The results of both will likely make their way into Field House beer. A market garden was also added.)
But one large challenge remains to get more Fraser Valley barley into more Fraser Valley-brewed beer: a malting facility.
While a certain amount of beer’s barley input can be un-malted, the majority needs to undergo the traditional malting process. For obvious reasons, a region that hasn’t grown barley doesn’t have any place to process barley for beer. The closest malting facility is in Armstrong, in the north Okanagan. Beyond that, the barley would have to be shipped to Alberta.
“We have been searching high and low for any solutions to malt the barley,” Vanderheide said.
The long-term goal, Vanderheide said, is to team with other brewers who want to use locally grown barley.
“Is there a future plan where we can have a shared facility where other breweries could access local grains?” Vanderheide asked. “In order to do that, we have to have some sort of malting facility somewhere close.
“Our long-term plan is maybe we can work together in the spirit of co-operation to create a shared facility that we believe can help to create a great local industry for growing local grains.”
Those issues aside, there are larger ambitions for the new Field House farm.
Vanderheide has successfully received the signoff from the Agricultural Land Commission to begin brewing small batches of beer on the site. The plan is to eventually open the brewery to the public.
Such a step would be a milestone for the Lower Mainland’s beer-making community.
Provincial rules require that, to operate on agricultural land, a brewery must source at least half of its ingredients from a B.C. farm.
That has traditionally been a challenge; although hop farms abound in the Lower Mainland, hops – which give beer its characteristic flavour – comprise a tiny amount of the total ingredients in beer. Barley makes up the vast majority.
The provincial government opened the door somewhat in 2017, by allowing breweries on at least two hectares (about five acres) of land to partner with farms outside of the Lower Mainland.
The ability to grow (and then malt) their own barley could give some breweries a boost of self-sufficiency while allowing them to boast of their local bona fides.
And Vanderheide is confident that the rise of artisan beer and food means that growing barley in the Fraser Valley is no longer a bad economic deal.
“Conceptually, the reason it hasn’t been done out here is because most grains are grown on massive commodity scales,” he said. “You need to do that because the value of that barley is so low. But when you’re using that barley as an ingredient for beer, and that barley is a high-quality product, it does have a substantially higher value, so it does make sense to do it on a smaller scale.”
Vanderheide said the amount of barley grown on his small plot of land is more than enough to meet Field House’s demands.
“We believe that many of these unused plots of land that are sitting fallow could be converted to small five- to 10-acre barley, wheat, rye crops, specifically for the food and beverage industry – to sell to breweries or for bread-making, more on the craft artisanal side of things rather than the mass globalized side of things.”
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