A Brewer’s Guide to Growing Barley
Written by Christopher || 01/10/17
Seed catalogues are stacking up in my apartment. I don’t currently have the garden space to grow everything I want to put in the ground, but I can’t resist looking through the descriptions from my favorite seed companies.
It always surprises me when seed catalogues show up in my mailbox in December and January. It’s -8 outside, people! I’m not thinking about planting tomatoes yet – I’m playing in the snow and swearing at my thermometer. But the seasons go round and round, and the organized amongst us make garden plans and order seeds in time to raise seedlings indoors.
With that in mind, I created a guide to growing barley for all of you brewers who are interested in experiencing your beer from the ground up. I find a very similar joy in designing a beer, brewing it, and sharing it with others as I do in taking care of my garden. Combining the two makes me enjoy both even more, and it makes me appreciate beer more broadly. An amazing amount of work occurs to go from seed to glass, and it’s more than worthwhile to follow the journey on a micro-scale in your backyard.
If you want to malt at home, it is not required that you grow your own grain. There are currently several sources that sell grain on a small scale, and we’ll be offering high quality grain along with the automated home malting equipment we’re developing and planning to sell.
However, growing barley, or other grains, is fun, fascinating, and educational. It’s less work than growing other vegetables, and it’s pretty amazing to make a beer from ingredients you grew and processed yourself. Spring may feel a long ways away, but we wanted to get everything organized during seed ordering season so you can have a guide to look back to once planting comes around.
In the US, around 3 million acres are planted with barley each year, and about 75% of the crop is for the malting industry. This acreage is primarily on large farms, with few small farms or home gardeners growing the grain. Thus, the seed system is primarily set up to sell large quantities of a small number of varieties (we dug into how barley varieties are developed and the lack of options in this article).
Given this, the smallest quantity most seed companies sell barley in is 50 lb bags, which will each cover a bit over ⅓ an acre. If you’re looking to grow at this scale, or just to buy high quality barley to malt, the Craft Malting Guild lists some options here. We can personally recommend Albert Lea Seed Company. We bought seed from them when we grew 3 acres this past summer, and they were friendly and helpful. Just make sure to order early, because things get crazy for them when the corn and bean farmers start placing/picking up orders in April!
Luckily for home gardeners there are several good options for ordering a smaller amount of seed for a more manageable plot size:
– Johnny’s Seeds – They’re offering 3 varieties that have been on AMBA’s approved barley varieties list in recent years: Conlon, Pinnacle, and Robust. I’ve bought seed from them several times, and it’s always germinated well. They can also be a good source for 50lb bags of seed for directly malting, if you don’t choose to grow it.
– Sustainable Seed Co – They offer hulled, hulless, and malting varieties of barley, with a few options in each category. Robust and Lacey are AMBA varieties, but the rest are rare or heritage varieties. Don’t fear the non malting varieties! They’ll still germinate, and could very well make a fantastic flavor.
– Seed Savers Exchange – Seed Savers hosts an exchange where anyone can offer seed, which is great for common vegetables and a bit of a crapshoot for grains, to be honest. We’ve gotten barley seed through the exchange before, but 2/3rds of the seed we requested never arrived. The seed we got was beautiful and purple, so if you’re feeling excited about digging through the listings and experiencing the good old snail mail system, jump in! Just be warned that many of the listings are discontinued.
These seed companies also offer other interesting grains, like wheat, oats, rye, amaranth, and buckwheat. All of these would be interesting to grow, malt, and brew, and aren’t terribly different from growing barley.
How much to grow? 1 plant? 10 square feet? 100? 1,000? This is obviously entirely up to you, but here are some calculations to help you decide.
Barley yields are measured in bushels/acre. Bushels used to be a volumetric unit corresponding to 8 gallons, but today are weight based and represents 48 lbs/bushel for barley. 1 acre is 43,560 square feet. Barley yields range based on your growing climate. 40 bushels per acre is a mediocre yield, 60 relatively average, and 80 or higher is quite good.
Now let’s look at some sample garden plots
|Plot Dimensions||Square Feet||Lbs of Barley Low||Lbs of Barley High|
|1’ x 1’ (Flower Pot)||1||0.04||0.09|
|4’ x 8’ (Raised Bed)||32||1.28||2.88|
|10’ x 10’||100||4||9|
|10’ x 20’ (Community Garden Plot Size)||200||8||18|
|20’ x 50’||1000||40||90|
A square foot won’t make much beer, but it’s a genuinely interesting plant, and it looks very pretty when dried down. Grow enough to make a bundle for your brewery! Reconnect with your hobby’s agrarian roots!
A 200 square foot plot is getting to the point where you could make a batch of malt, and brew 5 gallons of your own beer. At 1,000 square feet, you can harvest enough for several batches of beer. You can absolutely grow more than this by hand – we’ve done around 5,000 square feet by hand – it just becomes a bigger project. With space, a rototiller, and simple but proper harvesting equipment you can reasonably grow 100’s of lbs of barley by yourself.
Preparing for Planting
Planting prep for barley is similar to the rest of your garden. You need loose, weed free soil that isn’t a wet spot in your yard. Start by removing any weeds or grass from your plot by hand or using a rototiller. If you don’t use a rototiller, use a pitchfork to aerate the soil and decompact it.
Next, spread a thin layer of compost before planting. You can be much more careful about optimizing your soil for barley if you like, and there are many great resources on gardening, farming, and grain growing to help you. We usually get a soil test done at our local land grant university (Gooooolden Gophers!) and make decisions based on the results, but this isn’t necessary for a first time grower to get their hands in the dirt!
Planting can be done by broadcasting or direct-seeding. Broadcasting seems easier at first, but as Jack Lazor, a favorite grain growing author, writes:
“The archetypal image of the ancient farmer walking through his field, cloth sack under his arm, scattering seed by hand looks good as a block print in an old text, but it’s not the best way to establish a high-yielding stand of barley. Remember that Jethro Tull invented the drill seeder in the eighteenth century; it has been the standard seeding tool for grain since the Civil War.”
Broadcasting is hard, and doesn’t work very well. Seeds need good contact with soil, and this is hard to achieve after throwing the seed around willy nilly. Also, birds love to come and eat all this seed you just laid out for them to eat. Finally, weeding is pretty much impossible.
Plant in lines! You can do this by hand by making a furrow with a stick, placing barley seeds in the little valley, and then covering the seeds with soil. The upgraded method would be with a seeder, like the EarthWay. You just push it along and it places seeds in a furrow it makes.
Your seeds will germinate well with lines and buried seeds, and weeding will be significantly easier. It’s a good idea to use twine/marking sticks to plan out your plot and mark where you planted. Making your rows 6 – 8 inches apart has worked well for us, and is standard for planting at larger scales. You can tailor this to the size of your hoe/weeding implement though!
Planting rates are often around 125-140 lbs/acre. This works out to about 0.003 lbs/sq.ft., or 1.4 grams/sq.ft. We’ve experienced 25 seeds/gram on average, so plant 35 seeds per square foot. If you have 2 rows 6-8 inches apart in that square foot, you would plant 1 seed roughly every ⅔ of an inch.
Plant in the early spring. Barley usually requires around 90 days from planting to harvest, and the earlier you get it in, the easier it will be. Barley gets off to an earlier start than most weeds, and hopefully you only have to weed it 1-2 times before the plants shade out the competing weeds. We only have experience growing spring barley varieties in Northern climates, where you want to plant in mid April if you can. This timing depends on where you are and how early spring comes, but a general rule is that once the ground is workable and it’s not too wet, get the seed in the ground.
For those of you in warmer climates, please reach out to us if you have questions about what’s different for you. Winter barleys (which are planted in the fall, lie dormant all winter, and then take off early spring) can do well in your areas, and planting rules are a bit different. We don’t have experience with warmer climate growing, but we know of relevant resources and connections to help you out!
The Growing Season
Growing grain takes work during planting and harvest, but the plants mostly do their own thing all summer. Like I said, you might need to weed 1-2x early on to give your barley a head start in establishing itself, but after a month it should be able to fend for itself.
Barley obviously needs water, but it doesn’t like to grow in a puddle. If you live in a drier area, more frequent watering or irrigation will be important. If you’re in a climate with consistent rain throughout the summer you’re likely fine with very rare, or no, watering.
Barley does have diseases, but modern varieties have many resistances bred into them. You can’t do a lot about disease as a home grower – large farms rely on fungicides to manage disease issues. As long as you aren’t growing grain in the same location year after year and you have healthy soil, you’ll probably be completely fine.
Stress might come if a big thunderstorm rolls through, as high winds, hail, or strong rain can flatten a barley field. You can’t do too much in these situations, so just have a beer and hope it will be alright. If the grain stalk falls over (“lodges” is the agricultural term), you can try to upright it by hand or with string.
Mostly just spend May, June, and July strolling your yard or field to enjoy the beautiful crop of beer you’re growing! Blue/green stalks will pop up once the plant has established itself, and grain heads will slowly emerge. The kernels will fill out, and then the grain will start drying down and turning golden. For more information on barley’s growing stages, the U of MN has a helpful and thorough page.
Harvest time – good work, you’ve grown your own small version of the heartland’s amber waves of grain! Isn’t it beautiful as it sways in the wind, golden and bright?
Once your grain heads have gone from upright to hanging down, you’re approaching harvest. You can check if it’s dry enough a number of different ways. The grain should be hard, and you shouldn’t be able to dent a kernel with your fingernail. You can also cut a stalk, and check if the center is hollow. If you have a big enough field, you can harvest a small sample and determine the moisture content, which should be around 12-14%.
If you delay harvest and it rains a lot, the seeds can start sprouting while still on the stalks, which is very bad for your malting! At such a small scale, harvest earlier, rather than later. For the home grower, you can harvest the grain at a higher moisture content and then let it dry down further. Large farms wait to harvest until they hit the correct moisture content – otherwise they pay high energy costs to dry it down in the silo.
Harvesting is great fun. At a really small scale you can use scissors or a knife to cut the straw at the base of the stalk. At a slightly larger scale, a sickle is a neat and effective tool. Fedco Seeds sells one, as does Scythe Supply and Scythe Works. Look for a sickle specifically made for grain.
Once you get into 1000’s of sq.ft., look into getting a scythe. A scythe is an awesome, fascinating tool. The companies listed above mostly sell scythes, and it’s a whole hobby in itself. Send us a message or comment below if you’d like to talk more about how to use/modify a scythe for grain harvest. Finally, you can make/modify motorized equipment to harvest grain. A malting friend in Oregon has a wicked mower for harvesting his beer crop.
However you do it, cut your grain down at the base of the stalk, and tie it into manageable bundles. You’ll likely want to let it dry a bit further, so lean bundles (also known as “stooks”) together and place a few on top to make a little hut. This can be left in the field, but you can also bring bundles into a garage and hang them up if you have the space. Just beware of rodents, birds, or other creatures if you’re bringing it into an inside space!
Once you’ve harvested and let your crop dry for another week or two, it’s time to separate the kernels from the stalks and break off the long spikes from the end of the kernels (which are called the awn or beard). The best home threshing solution we learned from Brewing Beer the Hard Way, which is a fantastic resource for home growers, maltsters, and brewers.
Buy a paint mixer that attaches to a drill, and bolt on chain to the end of the paint mixer. Put a hole in the lid of a 5 gallon, cut off your seed heads, toss them into the bucket, and let it rip. The chains beat the seed heads apart, leaving you with a pile of kernels and broken stems.
Winnow this by pouring it between buckets in front of a fan until it’s clean. Brewing Beer the Hard Way has another video that demonstrates this well.
Woo! Now you’ve got a bag of clean barley seeds you grew all yourself! Congrats, you deserve a beer.
Before you celebrate too much, store your precious grain as you would store malt – sealed and in a relatively dry, cool space. Keeping it in a sealed, hard plastic container is a good idea to make sure creatures don’t spoil all your hard work.
Now give yourself a break! It is recommended to let the grain go dormant for a month or two after harvest and before malting. After this or whenever you’re ready, it’s time to malt your seeds, and then your beer is in sight!
We highly recommend buying extra seed that you don’t plant so that you can practice malting with it. No need to sacrifice your precious homegrown grain on a trial malting run when you’re still figuring out how to malt!
Growing grains is relatively simple, but we understand that there are many factors at play that make it feel complex. If you have any questions, ask away in the comment section below or in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org .