Q&A: Canadian Malting Barley Research Centre (Winnipeg. MB)

Peter Watts is the managing director at the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre (CMBTC) based in Winnipeg, MB. 

PW: The CMBTC was started in 2000, here in Winnipeg, in the Canadian Grain Commission Building. It was an idea that came together on the part of the Canadian grain industry, as there was a significant growth in demand for Canadian malting barley in the global market place. And so they recognized a need for a facility that could test and evaluate the quality of Canadian malting barley at a pilot scale. There has been existing micro scale processing capacity for malting and brewing for evaluating Western Canada malting barley up until then. But the industry felt that it would be better to have a larger scale pilot facility that would more mimic commercial scale processing of malt and beer. So they set up the CMBTC with the 75 kg pilot malt plant and 300 hecta litre brewing system. And for the express purposes of evaluating new varieties of Canadian malting barley that was being developed and registered and to evaluate new crop quality each year and of course to conduct applied research projects where necessary.

So the initial funding primarily came from the Canadian Wheat Board, as well as a number of grain companies and malting companies that were involved in the original set up. And it started operations in 2001. So it’s operating now for 17 years.

CHA: You mentioned that the CMBTC was created in response to the global interest. At that point of time, were there a lot of Canadian maltsters at all?

PW: Yup. There were several major malting companies operating in Canada. So the largest company still operating today, Canada Malting, was in existence back then. There has been a lot of changes in the malting industry since that time, but essentially many of the same malt processing plants that were around then are around today. So the Canada Malting facilities, there’s three of them. There’s a malt plant in Alex, AB, that’s now owned by Rahr [Malting], previously a company called West Can. There’s another one in Winnipeg, the Malt Europe plant, previously Dominon Malting. And there’s the prairie malt plant in Bigger, SK, which is now owned by Cargill. All of those were in existence at the time that CMBTC was set up.

Germinating malt. Photo courtesy of CMBTC.

CHA: How has the malting industry grown since 2000?

PW: There’s been a lots of consolidation at the global level in the malting industry, and so we saw, as I said, Malt Europe bought the facility in Winnipeg, Rahr Malting got the facility in Alex and Cargill bought the Prairie Malt facillty in Bigger. And actually, Grain Corp, which is an Austrailian based company purchased Canada Malting. So there’s been some changes at the ownership level, but at the processing level, it’s fairly similar, apart from some expansions and some upgrades. We’re fairly similar in terms of our overall capacity in Canada. We process about a million tons of malting barley a year in the domestic malting industry in Canada. About two thirds of that gets exported about one third gets used domestically.

I guess the changes that we’ve seen in the last five years would be more on the craft level, where we’ve seen new startups of micro craft malting companies, setting up shop in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, BC, and more recently Saskatchewan and even out in the Maritimes. We have yet to have a craft malting company set up shop in Manitoba, but I expect there will be one soon.

CHA: Besides research, what are some other things you do at the centre?

PW: We have our Malt Academy training program. It’s a program that was initiated about six years ago to provide training primarily for the malting industry. So people can come to the CMBTC and participate in our malt academy courses and learn the craft of malting. So we get participants from the major malting companies that send new employees or existing employees for training. We get a lot of entrepreneurs, who are setting up micro or craft malting operations, come in to learn about malting, getting the skills to set up a malting plant…and to operate a malt plant. The malt academy is one thing that keeps us busy in our spare time, so to speak. We offer a three day course, as well as a one week intensive program. So depending on what people are interested in, if they want a more in depth look at the malting industry, they can come for the one week intensive course, if they’re looking for a high level, they can participate in the three day course. We offer [the course] about four to five times a year.

CHA: And for those who are craft maltsters, they can send in samples to you for testing, right?

PW: Absolutely. We do fee for service work at the CMBTC. We’re a membership based organization. So we’re a non for profit, independent organization. Our funding comes from our 25 members, and we also get funding through the federal government and the grower associations in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. But we do have some fee for service work that we do. We will evaluate malt samples and barley samples that people want to send in, or beer samples. We do have a lab here, an analytical lab. We’ll do analysis on malt, for sure. For example, for someone setting up a new malting operation, especially in the early days, might want to get their malt tested for quality to make sure they’re meeting the specs that the brewers are looking for. So they can definitely send them to the CMBTC and have them analysed.

CHA: How is malting barley different from feed barley?

PW: Malting barley is really a specialty crop. One of the primary qualities characteristics of malting barley is the germination. So in order to process malting barley into malt, the barley has to germinate. Feed barley can germinate as well, but typically the distinctions between malting barley and feed, are that malting barley is meeting certain quality specifications, and one of those is that is germination. You want to have above 95% germination when the barley arrives at the malt plant. There are also protein levels that are important. You tend to want to have your protein in a range of 10.5%—12.5%. So it’s really about meeting the specifications. There are varieties that are specifically designated as malting barley in Canada, as there are in other parts of the world. Typically, these days farmers are going varieties like Metfcalfe, Copeland, and we have new varieties like Synergy…and Connect. These have all been developed as malting barley varieties. But even those varieties, they will have to meet the specifications of germination energy, protein content etcetera in order to be considered malting barley and to be selected as malting barley by the industry.

The 250L pilot brewery at the CMBTC.

CHA: So does flavour come into factor at all in classifying malting barley?

PW: Not today. Flavour is not something that is considered. When we’re in Canada, when we’re registering new malting barley varieties, flavour is not one of the quality characteristics that is considered. Flavour is a difficult one to nail down. It’s pretty nebulous. We may get there one day, but today, it’s not a consideration. I think there’s more and more awareness on the part of the brewing industry in terms of the malting barley varieties that are going into the malt that they’re buying. But historically, that’s been up to the malting company to use the malting barley varieties that they want to sue in order to create to make the malt that will be meet the specifications of the brewers. And so, if brewers are looking for certain quality characteristics, like protein content, extract levels, diastatic power. The malting company will be malting the individual varieties, but then they would blend them afterwards in order to meet those specifications.

CHA: Interesting. The last time I was at the centre, there were talks of maybe selling batches of beer with single varietal malts. What’s the latest on that?

PW: Everything that we do here at the CMBTC is with a single variety, because we’re doing all our testing. We’re evaluating the quality of individual varieties, whether it’s new crop samples or newly registered varieties, so we unfortunately used to dump our beer down the drain once we were done analysing it. But today, we sell our beer to the Fairmont Hotel here in Winnipeg. So they purchase all our beer and sell it on tap in their bar. That way, we don’t have to dump it down the drain, and we recoup a little bit of our cost. It’s convenient because they’re literally two hundred yards from our facility. It’s fun. They can claim it’s local. I mean, it’s a local [beer], but it’s really local. And it’s unique because you are drinking something different from a mainstream beer. It’s quite popular.

CHA: Do you have any projects coming up that you’d like to talk about.

PW: We’re doing lots of work on flavour. It’s certainly an area we’re interested in. We’re trying to understand what does constitute flavour with respect to individual malting barley varieties, and how can that flavour be expressed from the different varieties in beer. We are doing quite a bit of work in this area right now, essentially looking at some heirloom varieties, some current mainstream popular varieties and some of the newly registered ones, make some comparisons, and try to understand what the impact, or what sort of flavour characteristics these varieties have, and how that translates to flavour characteristics in the beer. It’s still early days, in terms of the learnings, but that’s certainly an area that we are focussing on here. We think that increasingly, it’s an area that is of interest to the malting and brewing industry, both domestically and globally.

We also do a number of research projects here that of interest to the industry. We completed a small project looking at impact of fusarium [head blight] and DON (deoxynivalenol) levels in barley on malt processing and the impact on beer. When barley has been infected with fusarium head blight, it creates a toxin called DON or vomitoxin. And that can end up impacting on the beer in terms of gushing. Just like in the way if you shake a bottle of beer up, you open it and it explodes, that can happen without shaking it if the DON levels are too high in the original malt product. Fusarium is a very pervasive challenging disease that we’re facing in Western Canada in the cereals industries so understanding how to mitigate DON growth and understanding this disease better and the impact it can have on our final products is very important for the industry.

We’re also looking at PYF—premature yeast flocculation issues, what the origin of that is. We’re doing a number of applied research projects here at the CMBTC.

CHA: Very cool. Can people come visit the facility at all?

PW: Sure. People are welcome to come visit. We ask people to give us advance notice if they want to come down. They’re welcome to come bring a group of people. It’s not a big facility so we tend to limit groups to 20 people.

Featured photo courtesy of CMBTC

Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre
Canadian Grain Commission Building

1365-303 Main Street
Winnipeg, Manitoba,
Canada R3C 3G7

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