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alaska barley

Alaska Flour Company’s Bryce Wrigley in a field of Delta barley/Alaska Flour Co. photo

Twenty-seven years ago this March, the New York Times declared the Alaska Delta barley project, the dream of the late and revered Gov. Jay Hammond and policy sidekick Bob Palmer, a giant bust.

 

Increasingly now, however it is looking more and more like Hammond and Palmer might simply have been ahead of their time.

Fears of a global barley shortage have been all over the news since the late summer of last year.

“Your Craft Beer Is About to Get More Expensive,” Bloomberg warned in November above a story saying that lower-than-expected barley harvests in Canada “emerged just as global stockpiles are poised to tumble to a 35-year low after dry conditions cut production from Europe to Australia, boosting costs for brewers and distillers who use the malted grain to make whiskey and other beverages.”

“Beer shortages could be a result of climate change thanks to barley crop failures,” Canada’s CBC had warned a month earlier.

The story followed on an August study suggesting a warming planet could radically reduce barley harvests in traditional production areas.

“Brace yourself for beer shortages and price spikes as climate change wreaks havoc on barley crops” is how Canada’s Financial Post pitched the study. 

That story and others spun off a study published in Nature Plants wherein scientists from China, the United Kingdom and California used five earth-system models to estimate future climate and then assess how climate change would affect barley production.

“Beer production might seem like a trivial consideration when it comes to climate change” Nature subsequently reported. “But (scientist Dabo) Guan hopes that highlighting a single luxury product will get people thinking about the broad implications of global warming.”

The story contained a graphic predicting beer prices in some countries could jump by almost $1 per 500 millilitres to almost $5 per 500 millilitres, depending on the how much the climate warms.

beer

Sales to China

The rising cost of barley was forecast to drive down consumption.

“As the world’s largest overall consumer of beer, China would show the biggest national drop in beer consumption, drinking 4.34 billion fewer litres of beer each year,” Nature’s Matthew Warren wrote. “Even the United States — a rare case of a country actually producing more barley after climate change — would also see a decrease in national beer consumption, as it would be exporting more barley than it ever has before.”

The export potential helped fuel Alaska’s barley dream in the 1970s and ’80s.

“Alaska is tapping its oil wells for a second product — bountiful cropland — to ensure a continuing harvest long after the oil runs out,” the Christian Science Monitor’s Jonathan Harsch reported in 1980. “Over the past 18 months, forests have been stripped and converted into rich fields of grain. The transformation, at a cost so far of $15 million for the first 50,000-acre, state-run demonstration project at Delta Junction, southeast of Fairbanks, has been made possible by oil revenues. It comes at a time when agricultural experts are increasingly concerned by the steady loss of U.S. farmland to urban sprawl and industrialization.

“The payoff, said bearded Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond on a visit to Chicago, is that with this fall’s harvest his state has joined the grain export business. The first harvest from 14,000 acres is out doing all predictions, and Governor Hammond expects that more than 10,000 tons of barley will be shipped to customers in Asia this year.”

Hammond’s proclamation would prove to be almost as premature as later Gov. Sarah Palin’s Republican National  Convention claim that Alaska had begun “a nearly $40 billion natural gas pipeline to help lead America to energy independence.”

Not a single shovel of dirt was turned on the gasline project, but the state did purchase the makings of a grain terminal for the port of Seward on Resurrection Bay, and the Alaska Railroad bought grain cars to move barley from Central Alaska to the coast.

Unfortunately, the export market never materialized.

“After spending more than $120 million to create farms where none existed before, the state has given up on a dream born when oil money grew faster than anything planted in the ground,” the NYT reported in March 1992.

Delta barley was long viewed as one of the little-populated state’s biggest boondoggles, though there have been some challenges to that conclusion in recent years.

All these years later, there are still farmers raising barley in Delta. And you can today buy barley flour, cereal, couscous, pancake mix and more from the Delta-based Alaska Flour Company. 

“It is true…that the Delta project flopped as it was originally planned….The state paid for the clearing of land, held a lottery to attract farmers and helped provide financing,” reporter Tim Bradner wrote in the Alaska Journal of Commerce in 2016.

“Bad luck played into the plan, however. Once lands were cleared and farmers were established, several years of unusually bad weather hit just as people were learning the ropes. Most important, world grain prices collapsed, which undermined the whole scheme.”

Global warming bonanza?

Since then, Alaska has steadily warmed.

Four of the state’s 10 warmest years have come in this decade, according to Alaska Climate Research Center data.

warmest

And the warming is predicted to continue.

At this time, there are don’t appear to be any brewers making beer with Alaska barley malt, but a 1991 analysis conducted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks concluded that growing conditions in “Interior Alaska are not ideal for cereal grain production, this preliminary study indicates that,
under proper management, it should be possible to produce a malting barley of acceptable quality in Alaska.”

Since 1991, the climate for growing barley in Alaska has only improved and the made-in-Alaska beer industry has exploded.

“The number of Alaska breweries and brewpubs mushroomed by over 150 percent from 2007 to 2017, and there’s no sign the state recession has hit Alaska’s brewers,” state economist Neal Fried reported in November 2017.

“Between 2007 and 2017, the amount of locally produced craft beer sold more than doubled from 454,000 gallons to 919,000 gallons,” he observed. “The percentage of Alaska produced beer sold in the state also more than doubled, from 3 percent to 7 percent.”

“During that same period, the amount of craft beer consumed in the state grew from 2.3 million gallons to 4.2 million gallons per year. At the same time, consumption of big beer fell from 11.9 million gallons to 9.6 million gallons, a 25 percent drop.”

Here, as elsewhere, big beer still dominates the market, but the trend lines show steady and continuing movement toward locally produced beer.

Alaska beer and Alaska barley malt seem a match destined to happen sooner rather than later. The Grace Ridge Brewing Company in Homer is already brewing a beer flavored with locally grown hops, the Kenai Peninsula Clarion reported.

Beer appears on its way to become to Alaska what wine is to France.

With Alaska barley, Alaska hops, Alaska water all linked to that scenically overwhelming Alaska terroir, there’s no telling how far the 49th state’s tastiest manufactured product might go globally in a barley-short world.

And with climate change hotting up the rest of the planet, who wouldn’t want to pop a cold one from the far north?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

13 replies »

    • yes, i knew some of the distilleries had been using them. it’s the same in Fairbanks. beer would seem a bigger market. Alaska is experiencing a beer boom despite its shrinking population.

      or maybe because of it with others drowning their sorrows as the economy trickles south.

      • Craig,
        You hit the nail on the head…
        Bad economy, poor salmon returns in many areas and most folks feel disenfranchised from our elected “leaders”…therefore just like Homer Simpson drowns himself in a mugg of beer after a discouraging day of menial work, so too are the remaining Alaskans.
        (At least those who are not benefiting from the legalization of Cannabis)

  1. I pay more for good locally brewed beer, I would pay more for good beer produced with locally sourced products. I believe Benjamin Franklin has been attributed with saying “life is too short to drink bad beer”

    If coming out of the last ice age leads to a better climate in Alaska for producing barley during my lifetime, it must be a sign from god that he wants me to to drink beer. Who am I to deny his providence?

  2. If one were to use only native Alaska plants to make a beer or “moonshine”, which plants would work? I realize wine is totally doable. Fireweed? Devil’s club, Cow Parsnip? Ferns? Did Alaska Natives commonly make an alcoholic beverage?

  3. Sadly, I don’t think these conclusions are realistic. Delta barley is suitable for animal feed and bread mixes, but the protein content is too high (if I remember correctly) to be suitable for malting for beer production. And hops require a more balanced blend of sunlight and darkness to produce cones, so it would be a massive effort to produce a commercial crop, requiring raising and lower of black-out curtains every twelve hours. Hops are grown around Anchorage, but absent such human intervention they don’t produce much more than tiny little buds where flavorful cones should appear. I wish it wasn’t the case; as a brewer I would love to brew with sacks of malt from Delta, bags of hops from the Kenai, and delicious glacier-fed water from Eklutna, but sadly I am limited to only that third item (though it does make a great beer, as does other spring water I’ve collected from the state). I would be shocked to see Alaska Grown barley malt and hops come to market in the foreseeable future, but here’s to hoping they someday do. Cheers!

    • you remember correctly Mike. the protein content of Delta barley is high, and it was once discounted for use as barley malt for that reason. but high protein barley malt is now pretty regularly used in brewing:
      https://www.homebrewersassociation.org/zymurgy/zymurgy-extra-2-row-vs-6-row-barley/
      you are also right about hops, but in these days of automation the problems there would appear easily solved. a greenhouse with shutters linked to light sensors could easily be programmed to dial in any choice of light to dark in a significant part of Alaska in the summer.
      and, of course, in the winter it’s just a matter of turning on the lights. you should get in touch with Bernie Karl at Chena Hot Springs and see if he can try growing some hops in those geothermal greenhouses.
      barley from Delta; hops for Chena Hot Springs, water from the Clearwater….
      or maybe send a note to Bobby Wilken’s at HooDoo in Fairbanks to see what he can do with a wholly made in Alaska brew.
      in the process of looking for a link for HooDoo i found this:
      “Ursa Major Distilling (Fairbanks)
      “Owners Rob and Tara Borland celebrated the grand opening of Ursa Major Distilling this month, a small, independent distillery located in Fairbanks. Their spirits are made from certified Alaska Grown barley, harvested in nearby Delta Junction.”
      obviously Delta barley will ferment. and though the farmers there are now growing predominately feed barley, there doesn’t appear any reason they couldn’t grow brewing barley:
      https://ipmdata.ipmcenters.org/documents/cropprofiles/AKcerealgrains2009.pdf

  4. Typo alert…or very interesting news: “The Grace Ridge Brewing Company in Homer is already brewing a bear flavored with locally grown hops.”.

  5. I think you mean Global Warming when you say “hotting up the rest of the planet”, as the climate changes generally every 3 months and has for billions of years. I see nothing more than cheap “fire water” being peddled when I see terms like “racism or climate change” these days. Good article though Craig. Man, just seems like an uphill battle – grain fields of Alaska.

  6. Awesome spotlight on current and potential Alaskan industry! Mixed with history- finer than beer in my opinion!

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