It is absolutely amazing to see the amount of work that goes into the beer making process. Doubly amazing is the fact that beer was an accidental discovery. After the grains were found to be edible, people quickly discovered that cooking/drying it gave a better flavor, greater degree of mallibitlity, and more stable shelf life. Thus, humans had a source of food that lasted longer than their normal sources that were subject to immediate decay. Not long after that, some of the grain seems to be accidentally wetted…and beer was born.
We’ve written this elsewhere, so I won’t linger too long. This intro is more of a segway to our current situation. Maybe this article will seem frenetic and metier in nature, but I want to make clear that beer is not an easy commodity to make.
Have you ever heard those souls who claim that craft or import beer is artificially inflated? Essentially, the claimant appeals to the snobbery of the drinker. In addition, there is an underlying assumption that all beers are created equal. Fortunately, no poor fool has been so imprudent to mention the above ideas around me in a long time. Most of what I have to say in this post is information oriented, so don’t worry that this is a demagogue against a particular party. In fact, it’s simply a rational explanation of why some beers are superior in quality and more costly than others.
Barley’s Traverse: Some barely is grown specifically for malting; other barley is meant for animal feed. It should be noted that there is an obvious qualitative difference in the brewing barley from the very beginning. So, some barely is “beer grade” while other barley is not.
Yet, even among brewing barley there is a qualitative difference. The so-called two row barley and six row varieties have differences. Generally speaking, the two row version is the preferred barley of more scrupulous brewer. The “rows” mentioned speak to the kernels of the barley. Two row has more plump kernels of grain. It offers larger starch percentages (ultimately, sugar in the brewing process) than the six row. Therefore, the ratio of starches (and other barley parts) to tannin (which creates harshness in the taste) is lower for two row in comparison with six row. Knowing this, it easier to see that six row is cheaper than two row.
Guess which variety many of the larger brewers use in their product. This might explain why they also use non-barley sugar (cheaper sugars) to increase their fermentables. In addition, they use adjuncts to smooth out the harsher products. So, there literally is a kernel of truth to the argument that craft brewers use better barley products. Be that as it may, both types of grain are suitable for brewing purposes. Don’t be deceived, most craft brewers use all good malt (barley derived) sugar, while the non-craft brewers largely do not, and that accounts for some of the price difference.
The harvesting process affects the general cost of barley. After the barley has barely left the field, it has to be dried and malted. The barley is dried to particular levels in order to render the grains dormant. After the grain has gone dormant, it is sent to the malting house where it is wetted and fooled into thinking that is becoming a viable plant. The grain begins to grow and establish new starch reserves that are intended to make the plant grow. When a sufficient amount of starch storage has occurred, the maltster cuts the process short by drying and heating the grain to various levels. This solidifies the starch on a molecular level, but it also renders the grain more frail, an important factor for the brewer. At any rate, the moisture level of the grain is now much lower, creating a more stable product with a longer shelf life.
Some barley is heated to maintain maximum starch content. Other barley is meant to be kilned at higher temps. The cost and energy associated with kilning grains to higher degrees is significant. Craft brewers use these “kilned”-types while big brewers uses a very minimal amount of these so-called “specialty” grains. Doesn’t this seem like a good reason to assume that craft beer will cost more? Also, guess who gets a break based on the fact that they are buying more grains?
I do want to mention briefly that most of the starch in really dark grains is gone by the end of the malting process. Therefore, the craft brewer still has to account for the alcohol requirements of a beer via starches found in the base malts. The craft brewer is in it for flavor, mouth-feel, taste and quality. There is devotion to the craft. Because of convictions about brewing, these brewers assume much more of the cost.
Finally, the brewer is ready to use that low-moisture, high starch barley. Craft brewers make bigger beers that require more of the grain that they pay a higher price to get. No problem, they happily run the grain they’ve procured through their mills (to crack the grain) and wet the grain with water that is hot enough to convert those starches (poly-saccharides/complex sugars) into maltose, which is their fermentable sugar. It’s worth mentioning that mashing and milling are not automated and require laborers to accomplish the task. The continued cost of labor is not recouped in the same way that a machine expense is. But who can afford the automated equipment? (I think you know who can.)
In addition to costs directly associated to the barley, of course factors like buying power have an effect on prices, since this may constitute an ability to determine prices. One only need look at companies like Walmart, which can dictate that they will only buy a company’s product if the price is better than that given to a competitor. I saw this firsthand when I worked at Kraft foods, so I can’t be convinced that it isn’t true. This principle applies to the barley market. (As a sidenote, something similar also happened with AB buying up tons of hops in the not too distant past. There are thousand ways to raise your smaller competitors’ prices.)
Okay, so craft brewers are using better and more barley for which they pay more, not only due to quality but also buying power. Furthermore, they are not able to buy grain by the rail car since they don’t have on-site silos, which significantly increases their prices due to factors of volume.
Trust me when I say this is an oversimplified explanation of the field to fermenter process. I did not want to bog anyone down with too much information. However, I think this is a sufficient understanding to debunk some common perceptions that are in place about craft brewing. We’ll write more on hops, yeast, and labor later. I hope this is informative for those who think there is no difference between what Miller is doing and what a thousand craft brewers are doing. PLEASE SUPPORT YOUR CRAFT AND LOCAL BREWER. Seriously, I’m just trying to fight for the small guy.