THE connection between barley and beer has always been in place, but a growing craft beer culture has many in the industry thinking the reputation of Australian grain could benefit.
Independent Brewers Association chair Jamie Cook said the craft beer movement had been building for a couple of decades, growing in earnest for the past 10 years and had "really accelerated" in the past five.
"It's been driven by a shift to conscious consumers - people are looking at what they eat and drink," he said.
"They want small and local, rather than big businesses; they want a relationship."
Mr Cook said the rise in craft beer was also driven by developing tastes and palates, moving away from mass produced lagers to a diversity in flavour.
"There are two key agriculture inputs for beer - hops and grain," he said.
"The hop industry has probably got the jump on grain industry, targeting craft, independent brewers in Australia and internationally.
"They moved away from fast-growing bulk varieties to something that gives diversity of flavour, not just bitterness."
RELATED READING:YP crop made into top drop
He said the malt industry had been primarily focused on exports - which make up about 70 per cent of the market - and the large scale brewers.
"Local breweries inevitably get what they're given," he said.
But he said this was starting to shift, partly driven by the increasing localisation of beer makers.
Of the nearly 600 microbreweries nationally, Mr Cook said about two-thirds were located in regional areas.
He said this provided a new point of interest and potential employer in a regional town, but also inspired collaborations with other local businesses, such as food producers or growers.
He said one of the biggest challenges was that the middlemen between grain producers and breweries was maltsters, which were also focused on larger markets, although there were some smaller scale operations popping up.
"We are seeing some 'paddock to glass' brewers," he said. "In Tas, there is even someone who grows their own hops on the same property."
He said the change was a "slow build".
"There has always been a link to agriculture at the mass level, but there is a growing artisanal approach from the brewers' side that is flowing back to growers," he said.
Mr Cook said there was also some room for experimentation, with some brewers using fruit or different grains.
In SA, the Lobethal Bierhouse has used sorghum and lentils in its beer.
"The great thing about brewing, it has a very short production cycle and likely a tap room in the brewery," he said. "(Brewers) can be quite innovative and experimental and get direct feedback from their consumers."
Barley Australia executive chair Megan Sheehy said many growers chose to produce malt barley because of the sense of a relationship with the end product.
She said Australia had a reputation for high quality malt barley, but for many global maltsters and brewers, price was still the key driver.
There has also been a link to agriculture at the mass level, but there is a growing artisanal approach from the brewers' side that is flowing back to growers.
"Some craft brewers are willing to pay a premium for provenance story - if it's important to them, they will pay more, but not everyone is in the position to do that," she said.
"Most brewers will have to consider price cycle, which is largely driven by global pricing rather than local demand."
She said there were cases of direct relationships between brewers and growers for some niche malting barley varieties.
Dr Sheehy said despite the small volumes involved, these still played an important role in the diversification of barley markets for Australian growers.
'HERO' PRODUCT NEEDS GOOD STORY
YORKE Peninsula graingrower Mark Schilling and the team at AG Schilling & Co have been taking a proactive approach when promoting their produce.
They set up their own beer under their own food label - Yorke Premium - made on a contract basis by regional microbreweries - and has begun marketing their own malted barley.
"We had to hero the product we grow," he said.
Mr Schilling, alongside AG Schilling & Co's Alan Harris and Neil Wittwer, began by visiting 13 microbreweries across SA.
"As a supplier of malt barley, I wanted to hear from customers - the breweries - what they are looking for," he said. "They're looking for providence and price."
They sent one tonne of malt barley interstate to Voyager Craft Malt, Whitton, NSW, with the end product used to make the first batch of Malbro-Mid Kolsch Ale.
He said working with a small quantity made it expensive, so for the second year they scaled it up, buying back 75t of their own Banks barley - an Intergrain variety malted at Coopers Maltings.
This was used for a second batch of beer or sold on to breweries and distilleries.
"My vision is more and more consumers will want to know where their product is grown," he said.
"This will help microbreweries facilitate a 'paddock to pint' experience."
My vision is more and more consumers will want to know where their product is grown.
He said the need for this push was evident at the recent Adelaide Beer and BBQ Festival.
"There were probably 50 or 60 breweries there and not one talked about the barley - they talk about the hops but never barley," he said.
"Let's start talking about barley and its story."
- Start the day with all the big news in agriculture. Click here to sign up to receive our daily Stock Journal newsletter.