Farmers choosing malt barley seed in the spring of 2019 would have seen CDC Copeland and AC Metcalfe at the top of the list of recommended varieties published by the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre (CMBTC). CDC Copeland was registered 20 years ago, in 1999. AC Metcalfe was registered in 1997. While the list includes newer varieties, barley growers are concerned that industry uptake of new varieties is too slow. Newer barley varieties may offer higher yields and better disease packages, but if maltsters might not buy the new varieties, growers will keep planting the old standards.
Peter Watts, the CMBTC’s managing director, understands the frustration. “We continue to work very hard at introducing new varieties into the system to get them commercialized,” he said. “The good news is that we’re having success in getting new varieties accepted by the domestic and global malting and brewing industry.”
In the 2017-2018 season, China emerged as the largest buyer of Canadian malting barley, purchasing 1.4 million tonnes and accounting for 85 to 90 per cent of total malting barley exports. Prior to that, the largest buyer was always the Canadian malting industry, said Watts.
Domestically, new variety acceptance by the major brewers has been slow too, though Watts doesn’t blame the brewers.
“It’s our responsibility as an industry to make sure that we’re promoting the new varieties to the end users and getting information and samples to them,” he said.
To encourage buyers to choose new varieties, CMBTC manages pilot-scale malting and brewing trials of new varieties and provides quality and performance results to end users.
“With respect to uptake of new varieties, it is important to remember that historically and currently, the Canadian malting companies have always played a critical role,” said Watts. “They are contracting new varieties each year with producers and testing them internally for quality and suitability for the customers. And they conduct trials with their brewer customers with the new varieties to get them accepted.”
Back at the farm
At the grower level, the shift to new varieties isn’t as apparent, or at least not as quick. Saskatchewan malting barley producer and craft maltster Matt Enns believes the industry has a long way to go.
“My insular Western Canadian opinion is that new varieties have a huge uphill battle in terms of acceptance,” he said. “The predominance of Copeland and Metcalfe speaks to that.”
Combined, CDC Copeland and AC Metcalfe made up 78 per cent of production in 2016, Enns said, but agreed that Synergy has gained some market share.
“I do have the perception that China is more willing to try different varieties,” he said. “However, if the big maltsters are already malting Copeland and Metcalfe, they don’t really feel like switching out to a different variety if they don’t have to.”
Saskatchewan grain grower and SaskBarley chair Jason Skotheim agrees, adding that a coordinated effort will be needed to push acceptance.
“What we want to see at SaskBarley is that we don’t go into another 20 or 25-year cycle because that’s only five varieties in a century,” he said. “What we want to see is possibly a five- to seven-year span of a variety, and at any given time three new varieties — one that’s tailing off, one that’s peaking and one that’s growing.”
Coordinated efforts are underway currently. The CMBTC, along with the Brewing and Malting Barley Research Institute (BMBRI), is working to develop an integrated approach to new variety acceptance. Watts said it will be implemented as early as next year.
The BMBRI participates in the facilitation and coordination of the Collaborative Test sites. “The Collaborative Test site data is a critical part of the testing of new lines being considered for registration and ensures these new lines meet the requirements of the industry,” said executive director Gina Feist.
“Post-registration, BMBRI members perform plant-scale testing to gain an understanding of the new varieties’ performance in the malthouse and brewery, and how the new varieties will fit each member’s needs.”
All of these efforts make for a “good news” story, but more needs to be done. “In the past few years the Canadian industry has been more co-ordinated and focused in the area of promoting new variety acceptance,” said Watt. “We are definitely not there yet, and all of us who are in the industry know we have a long way to go.”