Outstanding in the Field
In the rolling plains of Central Oregon, north of Redmond along Highway 97, Mecca Grade Estate’s shiny silos are a speck of agricultural industry on the horizon. Mount Hood peeks over the hazy hills to the north of the thousand-acre farm, which produces seasonal grass crops including barley, wheat, and rye. Over the last half-decade, the Klann family, who have lived on this piece of land outside of Madras since 1905, has diversified the farm’s business and made Mecca Grade a buzzword in the beer and barley worlds.
On a summer morning with the mercury teasing triple digits, 25 or so brewers and distillers and barley scientists, and one beer writer, gathered at the farm for a “Malt and Barley Field Day.” After coffee and muffins inside the farm’s reception and tasting area, the group walked across the gravel lot and into the barley field. The flaxen awns, now dry and brittle before harvest, sprayed from the seed stalks like antennae. The “amber waves,” which from afar appeared soft and fluffy, bore more resemblance to a cluster of bristle brushes up close, and made loud, crunchy swishing sounds as the crowd waded into the waist-high rows.
Spread out between the rows in the combine tracks, Seth Klann introduced the farm and explained that the relatively short (1,000 feet), narrow rows of barley in which we stood were part of the Next Pint project, and represented some of 130 different barley varieties cross-bred with Full Pint barley that have undergone field testing at Mecca Grade. In this case, Mecca is an apt description; Seth is on a mission, looking for the Goldilocks seed: Oregon Promise.
The story behind the mission begins at Oregon State University, where the team of barley breeders developed Full Pint barley in 2015. The process of breeding barley and selecting for desirable genetic traits is still very analog; barley, with 50,000 genes, does not lend itself to the more controversial brand of genetic modification. Instead, crosses are made by hand. Barley is self-pollinating, so to make a specific cross, a person, in this case faculty research assistant Scott Fisk, must physically remove the anthers, which contain pollen, put a bag over the plant, and then “impregnate” it with pollen taken from another plant.
The “true breed” is created from the pollen tissue of that cross. The process to create a genetic clone, or “doubled haploid” plant, involves a petri dish, a nutrient bath, controlled environment, and the hope that “spontaneous doubling” will occur; that the pollen’s seven chromosomes will double into the 14 necessary for germination. After that, the plants are grown in a greenhouse to generate more and more seed stock until there is enough for a field trial. One barley kernel can produce around five seed stalks, each of which will have many seeds; exponential growth.
[OK, this is a good time for a break. It just got heavy. The reason I find this so fascinating (besides that it seems like magic), is that these folks, both at OSU and Mecca Grade, are on the avant garde of beer flavor development. The difference between a malty pale beer brewed with standard domestic 2-row barley malt (Copeland or Metcalf) and a beer brewed with Full Pint barley malt is drastic, and can be traced–via chemical and sensory analysis–behind the malting process to the grain itself, and where it was grown. That’s terroir. It may sound snooty when talking about malt, but hop growers and brewers who have the luxury of selecting particular rows and lots of hop varieties have been talking about terroir for years. Hops are just more glamorous. Malt, especially base malt, has been treated like a blunt tool, with specialty malts relied upon to provide complex flavors. Now back to the field.]
Each of the test plots at Mecca Grade represented a different cross, and each was visibly different. Despite the science behind this project, these field trials quickly reveal which varieties are more suitable for growth at this place. Some of the rows had been decimated by birds, their once lush seed heads scraggly and lame in the breeze. For some reason, the birds chose to eat that one; it will not advance. Another row had “lodged”– fallen over because of wind, rain, or hail. It will not advance.
Grain is grown all over the world under many different conditions. What becomes Oregon Promise will probably not be suitable for growth in the Skagit Valley, or in Montana or Alberta, Canada, where most North American malting barley is grown. Copeland and Metcalf were developed for their adaptability to climate and geology, and for their consistent yield, protein content, and various statistics that made them desirable for brewing enormous batches of beer. They were not developed for flavor contribution.
Deep in the weeds of the OSU barley breeding program, professor Pat Hayes plays with analogy, metaphor, and off-color hand signals when he talks about barley; it helps. “A barley variety is like a kid,” he said. “Some are stinkers.” Once a good “kid” is found, “malting is the education,” on its path to the pint glass. “Brewing makes it a professional.”
More than likely, Oregon Promise will not have the highest yield of all. Seth is, “looking for novel flavors over prime malting data.” Mecca Grade currently grows Full Pint barley. The transition will take some time, but will provide the farm with its own barley variety and further the development of its terroir.
Once it got too hot to learn anything more in the field, the group tromped back to the reception area, and through a door to where the
magic malting happens. Once the barley is harvested and threshed to remove most of the chaff, it is stored in very large silos. At any given time, the goal is to have an extra year’s supply of barley on hand in case of unforeseen events like a hailstorm or late-season rain that can ruin a crop.
From the silo, the grain is augured down a chute to a sorting machine. Bits of chaff are sifted off to a separate bin, and the barley is run over perforated plates to separate grains that are too small and won’t germinate properly. Standards are high here; Seth reluctantly admitted that Mecca Grade malt is a luxury product, so extra care must be taken to ensure that it looks and tastes good, and makes good beer.
Following the sorting and sifting, the barley is moved into a 12-ton unimalter. The large metal box, checkered with various doors for observation and troubleshooting the various conveyor belts and stirring arms inside, has the ability to perform all of the steps in malting: steeping, germination, and drying/kilning. At the time, a batch of malt was in its second day of germination. Little rootlets poked out from each kernel, and its softened texture yielded a raw, husky corn-like flavor.
It takes around five days to produce a batch of malt. After it is done, it goes through one more machine, which knocks off the “chits,” the protein-rich rootlets of the sprouted barley; those are unnecessary in the brewing process, and Seth hopes to find a use for them someday.
After the tour, the group was treated to a catered lunch and a selection of commercial beers brewed with Mecca Grade malt. Brouwerij West from San Pedro, CA had sent up a Belgian-style blonde ale, no doubt brewed with Pelton, a pilsner-type malt. Justin and Jocelyn Leigh, founders of the young Dwinell Country Ales in Goldendale, WA, had brought a refreshing gose that seemed to be the go-to beer after a good swelter.
Oregon Spirit Distillers and McMenamins Edgefield Distillery teams had brought some whiskey, too. There were two from Oregon Spirit Distillers, one made with Metolius and one with Vanora. The Vanora version was lush and slightly sweet, with ample legs coating the glass. Most remarkably, McMenamins had brought a near cask-strength white (no barrel) whiskey that used 20% Opal, Mecca Grade’s crystal malt. The aroma steamed out of the glass with strong notes of spun honey and s’mores, a surprise coming from a clear spirit. McMenamins currently has a rye whiskey (100% Mecca Grade rye) aging in new Oregon oak barrels. Lee Hedgmon, a distiller at McMenamins, compared Oregon oak to Japanese oak, which has high levels of vanillin, and should lend a sweet-fruity softness to the rye’s spice.
A Note on Sustainability
In the high desert, the annual rainfall of 8-10 inches is about half of what barley needs to grow well. To supplement, the Klanns irrigate with center pivot sprinklers. They closely monitor water usage, irrigating specifically to mitigate seasonal stresses, and runoff from both the irrigation and maltings is collected in settling ponds and reused. And although the farm is not organic, it uses minimal doses of chemical intervention. It switched to compostable malt bags after encouragement from The Ale Apothecary owner Paul Arney, who uses all Mecca Grade malt in his beers.
The family farm will continue now, likely through generations, with renewed vigor as a result of its expansion from grass into malting barley. Mecca Grade’s biggest advantage is the personal connection Seth and his family have made with brewers and distillers. Beer is an agricultural product; good beer begins in the field, and the ability for brewers to have access to their farmers helps close the too-common gap between producer and consumer. More knowledge of the ingredients and processes that create beer means that consumers have more resources to choose what they drink. And though Mecca Grade will never have a majority share of the malt market, there are lots of other small maltings operating around the country making similar connections to their communities. The economic and social value of these independent businesses cannot be overstated.