Dubbed simply ‘Just Beer’, the latest release from Sydney’s Batch Brewing premieres malted barley sourced from a startup craft maltster in south-western New South Wales.
Just Beer stemmed from the brewery’s desire to directly support farmers who are practising sustainable agriculture, founders Andrew Fineran and Chris Sidwa told Australian Brews News.
Sidwa said that under the current barley supply chain, all farmers are paid the same price for their crop regardless of how it is produced, and the only malt available is derived from barley bred to suit the needs of the big brewers.
“What they’re harvesting each year are malts that will produce a lot of alcohol very efficiently,” Sidwa said.
“They’re not even considering anything to do with the flavour. I don’t need super high diastatic power and a super high attenuation limit – I actually don’t want those things.
“I want to encourage growers to put something in the ground that’s going to get us better beer, but that chain is broken, that communication doesn’t exist with the big guys,” he said.
Enter Voyager Craft Malt, a Riverina, NSW startup founded by Stuart Whytcross and Brad Woolner, whose families have been producing barley and other cereal grains for four generations in the small town of Barellan.
“They’ll be producing malts in relatively small batches at relatively similar prices to what the industrial guys charge us, but because they’re doing it in a more efficient way, they’re paying the farmer a lot more than the farmer’s currently getting,” Sidwa said.
Just Beer using Schooner malt
Using what amounts to a pilot kiln, Voyager is currently in an experimental phase, producing a single tonne of Schooner malt per week – an heirloom barley variety that Whytcross believes is not currently being grown anywhere else in Australia.
“Schooner malt is one of those varieties that from a big malthouse perspective has poor attenuation limits and poor extract… things that are music to my ears,” Sidwa said.
Batch has been slowly integrating Voyager’s malt into a few of its beers. Released last week, Just Beer is the first brewed using the malt almost exclusively, supplemented by a very small proportion of Weyermann Wheat.
“It’s ‘Just Beer’ because we want to be using fewer malt varieties. We want to simplify the recipe but it’s also [about] being ‘just’ to the environment and to the people in the supply chain that we’re working with,” Sidwa said.
“Craft brewers leave industrial beer because they want to feel good about what they’re drinking and they want a connection with who they’re working with.
“That connection can’t end at the brewery, it needs to continue to the maltster and the farmer. We can’t be using industrial malt to make craft beer.”
Thanks to an open dialogue with Voyager, Sidwa said Batch is sourcing malt that meets its specifications, avoiding the need to make tweaks in the brewhouse to compensate for inadequate raw materials.
“If your malt goes really dry then you need to compensate with some caramel malt; something that’s going to put some body back into it, something that’s unfermentable,” Sidwa said.
“Those malts oxidise very quickly, they make your beer taste like cardboard sooner than it otherwise would.
“These are things we shouldn’t have to do, we should be having communication with malthouses and farmers and therefore changing it that way,” he said.
A multi-year project
Fineran said Just Beer is closest in style to an easy drinking Lager, but it is a multi-year project that will evolve based on the malt available from Voyager.
“We’re going to communicate the changes and differences batch-to-batch,” he said.
Sidwa said this approach may incorporate oats and wheat sourced from Voyager, reflecting sustainable farmers’ rotating crop cycles.
“You need to be incorporating different crops onto your land in sequence from harvest-to-harvest to make sure that you’re putting nutrients back into your soil,” he said.
“If you’re just pulling barley out year after year after year, using lots of pesticides and herbicides to boost your yields, that’s not sustainable in the long term.
“To encourage people to plant things like rye and oats that are beneficial to the soil… You need to buy them from them. You can’t ask them to plant it and then say, ‘that’s your loss economically – suck it up’.”
Fineran said Batch would ideally like all ingredients for the beer to be sourced directly from family-owned primary producers, located in the closest proximity possible to the brewery.
“For the hops, if we can also make that happen, we will. There are a few options where we can do that, that aren’t multinationals,” he said.
But Sidwa said hops will not be a feature of Just Beer, imparting only gentle bitterness.
“It’s a simple beer, it’s not intended to be multiple IBUs and lots of different crazy hops or anything headline-grabbing,” he said.
Rewarding sustainable agriculture
Voyager is currently only able to supply malt to Batch and a couple of other small breweries, but will soon be expanding to a new kiln that will allow it to ramp up supply.
“Batch are only a small brewery but already they’re having a say in the sort of crops that we’re growing at the moment,” Voyager’s Stuart Whytcross told Australian Brews News.
“There’s a lot of potential there for craft beer to essentially change farming practice, or ensure that sustainable agriculture continues to happen.
“If we can start getting that story across to beer drinkers, then potentially every time they’re spending a dollar, they can really have a bit of a vote on the future of agriculture,” he said.