The Bow Project

For a new variety of malting barley to reach the consumer, it’s usually gone through numerous years of selection, crossing and testing in multiple growing environments. With Western Canada being the place for growing barley, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the last few popular malting barleys to dominate the market like AC Metcalfe and CDC Copeland have Canadian roots. And one of the newest malting barley variety to hit the market is CDC Bow with the Bow project.

So what is the Bow Project? “Wes Woods of SeCan came to us a couple of months ago and asked if we would be able and willing to malt a batch of Bow barley for distribution to a few of Saskatchewan’s craft breweries.  I immediately was excited to do it,” says Matt Enns, co-founder of Maker’s Malt.

Named after the Bow River which flows out of the Rockies through Alberta, into the South Saskatchewan river and eventually through Manitoba, the Bow barley was bred to be an extremely tolerant variety that would help with harvestability, with a lower grain protein to improve malt selection. All of the early breeding work, which includes initial crossing, first plots to gauge yield potential and malting performance, was done in Saskatoon, before being expanded out to Western Canada to assess adaptability in different growing environments and climates. From a brewing point of view, the breeders aimed to combine high extract, high free amino nitrogen (FAN) and low beta-glucan, and from a malting point of view, the breeders aimed for good germination and low peeling.

As a craft maltster, Enns believed that Makers Malt was a perfect fit for the project. “It is a hotly debated topic among craft maltsters as to how much influence barley variety has on the malt and subsequently on the beer produced. We are uniquely positioned to address this question as we malt single variety batches, contrary to the typical industry mixed batches, are small enough to do custom batches, and have…brewers who are flexible and interested in some of the same questions. We have at least 14 craft breweries involved and they will all release a beer made from Bow barley in January.”

Malt samples. Photo courtesy of Matt Enns.

Being the only malting company in Saskatchewan, Enns’ move from the farming business to the malting business was fairly organic. “Our entry into the malting business has its root in the fact that we have been malt barley growers for a long time,” explains Enns. “Our farm is situated in an area called the Sask Valley near Rosthern, Saskatchewan and is one of the premiere malt barley growing areas in the world. Our farm group, consisting of a four-farm collective, has decades of experience growing high quality malt barley.”

While Enns was always involved with the family farm, his day job for 12 years was working as a physiotherapist in Saskatoon. When a neighbour’s farm became available for sale five years ago, Enns saw an opportunity to move to full-time farming. His family took a winter down in Florida as snowbirds one year, and he joined a local craft beer group Nona Brew Crew, that was formed by homebrewers. “The experiences I had with this group opened my eyes to what the craft beer movement really was. This combined with my role marketing our grain, my previous life as a physiotherapist, time off in winter to think without working in a clinic all gave me some time to augment the idea [of craft malting]. I got on the internet and saw that there were in fact some craft malting operations that had opened to feed the craft beer movement, but amazingly none at all in Western Canada where we produce so much of the world’s best malting barley.”

Enn’s idea to start a craft malting operation was almost radical, and had a hard time getting off the ground, until John DePutter, a well-respected market analyst, came through his town on a speaking tour. “We were all at a table listening to his presentation on the commodity markets. When he got to the malting barley section, he mentioned that someone should really start a malting facility in Western Canada and that if someone did it he would love to be an investor. All of a sudden my idea had some traction.”

The malt house. Photo courtesy of Matt Enns.

One of the interesting aspects about the Bow project, was that besides having commercial brewers testing the malt, the Saskatchewan homebrew clubs, Ales and Lager Enthusiasts of Saskatchewan (Regina, SK) and Saskatoon Headhunters (Saskatoon, SK), were also involved in the testing. Enns credits that involvement to the good relationship they have with the two clubs. “We have a good relationship with both of the larger home brewers clubs in the province and thought they could be valuable to the project in a number of ways. We wanted to learn as much as we could about Bow Barley and how it is perceived in both objective metrics such as brewhouse efficiency, and subjective performance like taste profile. Getting this malt into the hands of a number of homebrewers gives us a chance to have that brewing and discovery process performed many times over in a short period. Secondarily, homebrewers are also avid beer fans, so to get them excited for the Bow Project is important to us. In my opinion they’re the grassroots of craft beer.”

Tyrone Keep, from the Saskatoon Headhunters, was one of the homebrewers involved. “Matt contacted me in December, along with ALES, wondering if we wanted to be involved with the Bow malt event. Of course I jumped at the chance. It was a bit last minute but seven members took part. Makers Malt donated the Bow malt and prizes for a Best of Show Open Style Category club competition.”

Keep and fellow homebrewer Aaron Krywicki brewed a British Gold Ale with all Bow malt, Idaho 7 hops and Imperial Yeast’s Pub Yeast. “The beer itself was decent…a bit extra malt sweetness than expected. Flavourwise, the malt itself was a bit like Maris Otter—not quite as toasty [or] biscuity but definitely more flavour than regular 2-row. Everyone got very good extraction and most ended up a SG point or two higher than expected. Same goes for the craft breweries.”

On January 26, 2019, Maker’s Malt hosted a “Grain to Growler event” in Saskatoon, SK, which included a Bow Tap Takeover, and a discussion about the development, malting and brewing of the Bow barley. Keep was at the event. “It was very well attended overall, I’d guess about an even split between beer nerds, friends of Makers, some…farmers, SeCan and ag/crop scientists. The presentation was fairly informal but was a good mix of information and entertainment both from Matt at Makers and Aaron Beattie the U of S Barley Breeder. Aaron Beattie’s predecessor was even in attendance and had some crop breeding anecdotes. It was a lot of fun and there was a good mix of beer.” Maker’s Malt will be hosting a similar event in Regina, SK on February 8.

The Bow project event in Saskatoon on January 26, 2019. Photo courtesy of Tyrone Keep.

And as for the Open Style homebrew competition, there were some interesting entries. “All entries used [more than] 80% Bow barley. Some used 20% Makers Malt Vienna, others just had some acid malt for pH adjustment,” Keep recalls. “The winner, Billy Walker, used 100% Bow barley but he home roasted 10% and he smoked another 10% over Chokecherry wood. Definitely the most interesting and creative entry!”

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