The important beer ingredient is beginning to be grown specifically for local brews, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. If barley is as successful as homegrown hops have been in Wisconsin, it could create a mutually beneficially relationship for farmers, craft breweries and conscious beer drinkers who want local ingredients.
Dan Carey, brewmaster and co-founder of New Glarus Brewing Co., the largest craft brewery in Wisconsin, said barley could take off if the quality is premium.
"Hops are sexy and hops are hot right now," he said. "Barley's not something people think about."
Jim Gratz, a Darlington farmer, planted 80 acres of barley in the spring and will harvest the crop this week. If it meets the standards needed for beer, it will be used to make some of New Glarus's award-winning brews next spring, and Gratz said he will increase barley production next year.
Wisconsin used to be a major producer of barley, but farmers eventually shifted to corn and soybeans. Most of the barley that's still produced in the state is used for cattle feed.
Dean Volenberg, a Door County University of Wisconsin-Extension agent, has helped conduct barley research that's been ongoing for 10 years at an agricultural station north of Surgeon Bay. In a report published last year, he said that Wisconsin grown barley can provide something that barley grown elsewhere can't match.
"As with grapes, the geography, geology and climate where hops and barley are grown affect their flavor characteristics," Volenberg wrote. "This means a product made from Wisconsin-grown barley and hops will have unique characteristics."
Carey said he's willing to pay twice as much for locally grown barley compared to barley grown in other parts of the country.
"For us, it's money well spent," he said. "Small family farms are the backbone of our country and it's important to support small family farms and local agriculture. The goal is to try and talk farmers into putting barley into their rotations instead of putting oats or wheat into their rotation. If you can grow oats and wheat, you can certainly grow barley."