Brewing With Locally Sourced Malt – Farm Boy Farms

farm_boy_farms_logo-1_Farm Boy Farms is a local maltster and hop supplier in central North Carolina.  They opened in 2011 with a goal of supplying high quality local ingredients to craft breweries and homebrewers.  This is their fourth year growing AMBA recommended 2-row.  They have also grown AMBA 6-row, Robust, but  now focus on 2-row. Farm Boy is one of two local maltsters in North Carolina, joining Riverbend Malt House, which is located in Asheville, NC.  We wrote a post a while back about purchasing all-grain homebrew ingredient kits from Riverbend.

But why should you buy local malt?  Grain is a highly competitive market, and prices have come down dramatically over the past decade, so why would you pay more for local malt?

Homebrewers and craft brewers have always had a desire to support their other local small businesses, and that is one of the great things about this industry.  The craft beer and homebrewing serge over the past five years in North Carolina has resulted in an economy that supports local farms as much as they support their local beer.  It’s a symbiotic relationship.

OK, so buying local is the “right thing to do,” but at the end of the day, you want to make the best beer you can, and you don’t want to sacrifice quality to support local, especially if it’s going to cost a little more.

Because of this, I agreed to try out some malt from Farm Boy Farms to see how it stands up to other mass-produced grain.  I decided to brew a crisp and clean American Wheat beer made from 100% local malt: 55% 2-row and 45% wheat malt (plus a few rice hulls to avoid a stuck sparge).  This style would allow us to showcase the malt in an appropriate fashion in an unforgiving beer that will not hide many faults.

We brewed a 10-gallon batch on Saturday and I closely observed the numbers to see how they compared to the numbers that Farm Boy publishes and how they compare to what we’re used to seeing in mass-produced grain from Briess or Rahr.

First, below are the numbers that were provided to me from Farm Boy:

2-row malt

barley growing

American Malting Barley Association (AMBA) recommended varieties of 2-row that Farm Boy Farms currently has growing.

9.8% protein
2.1% nitrogen
Moisture: 4.5%
Fine grind as is: 78.3%
Fine grind dry: 82.7%
Diastatic Power: 151
Grain width: 1/8 of an inch
Hard/glassy >90% conversion

Malted wheat

10.9% protein
1.6% nitrogen
Moisture: 5.6%
Fine grind as is: 72.4%
Fine grind dry: 76.7%
Diastatic Power: 84
Grain width: 1/10 of an inch
Hard/glassy >90% conversion

My biggest concerns were the increased moisture content and the higher than usual SRM of the 2-row.  High moisture content means that the same weight of grain will be less efficient because there is more water in that weight than usual, and the higher SRM means that it would be more difficult to obtain a light yellow, straw colored American Wheat ale.

Dan did say that he believes that the SRM is lower than 6 and that they have successfully reduced the moisture numbers since these results were published.  But we would only know for sure once we gave it a shot!

The other information that Farm Boy provided were some recommendations on using the grain:

mill gap: 1.08mm
mash temp: ~150F
sparge temp: ~195F
mash temp during lauter: ~165F
sparge rate: ~1.4 quarts per minute

You may notice that this is a fairly tight mill gap, meaning that their grain is smaller than some of the commercial grains.  The sparge temp also seems a touch high, but the goal is still to raise the mash up to just under 170 during the sparging process.  The sparge rate was less important to me as I would be doing a batch sparge.  I also elected to have a slightly larger mill gap to accommodate my system and to avoid a stuck sparge since we were doing a beer with 50% wheat malt, which is notorious for gumming up your sparge.

With that being said, brew day went quite well.  It was a simple recipe with a single infusion mash and only a couple of hop additions.  I chilled the beer down to 70 degrees, pitched a clean American ale yeast (the new Wyeast West Coast IPA in one half, and the White Labs Kolsch yeast in the other) and then stuck it in the fermentation fridge where it will hold about 67 degrees for the next couple of weeks.  I’m fermenting on the cooler side for an American wheat, and I pitched a big healthy starter as to avoid any yeast-produced off flavors or many esters.  I want it to be a very clean beer that will let the locally sourced malt shine through.

Brew Day Observations:

  • The grain kernels are smaller than what you typically buy.  Wheat is always smaller and harder, but both the 2-row and the wheat seemed smaller than usual.  This resulted in my mill struggling with it quite a bit.  I ended up going over to Bull City Homebrew and using their 3-roller mill to crush the grain, which worked just fine.  I did not set the mill as tight as the suggested setting, as I wanted to avoid a stuck sparge.

UPDATE FROM FARM BOY: The size issue is certainly something Farm Boy is  working on with NC State University.  An adapted American Malting Barley Association recommended variety to the mid-Atlantic does not exist, so they are working on plant management strategies to produce plumper seeds.  Farm Boy’s collaborative effort with NC State will hopefully provide an adapted barley in about four years based on projections. 

  • The grain was dirty (specifically the 2-row).  At the end of the malting process, after the grain has started germinating and has been kilned, it is cleaned.  This cleaning process removes the acrospire and rootlets, which start to grow during germination, from the grain  I noticed quite a bit of this excess material still in the grain.  The result is that for each pound of grain, you’re also getting some percentage of non-useful grain pieces, which can result in less efficiency.  However, it is a very very small amount and in all honesty is probably just an aesthetic complaint, but it is worth noting as it does make the grain different than the mass produced malts.

(Photos below illustrate this point.  From left to right: a diagram of a malted barley kernel; a close up of the FarmBoy 2-row with visible rootlets and/or acrospire; the bag of FarmBoy malt with the extra pieces shaken down to the bottom. Click to enlarge images.)

diagram of malted barley grain close up grain bag

**UPDATE FROM FARM BOY: The rootlets problem has been addressed.  Farm Boy has improved their method of moving the malt from the kiln to their improved debearding tank and then to the sack. They are now much more efficient at cleaning the malt. See image below for rootlets that are no longer making it to the finished sack.


  • The SRM (color) of the 2-row was listed as 6, and the SRM of the wheat was listed at 3.  But when I mixed the two together, the wheat seemed darker than the 2-row.  My guess is that the 6 SRM of the 2-row is a bit high.  Looking at the finished wort, I should be getting the straw color that I expected of an American wheat.  In my not-so-professional opinion, I would estimate that the actual SRM of the 2-row is about 3 and the wheat is about 4 or 5 SRM.  But, I in no way did any professional testing to conclude that.
  • My efficiency was lower than expected.  I took into account that I did not crush the grain as fine as was recommended.  I also did not sparge at quite as high of a temperature as was suggested.  I would typically expect about 68-70% efficiency with this recipe on my system.  Due to the larger mill gap and the lower sparge temperature, I was expecting about 65%, but when I took my gravity reading, it showed that I only got roughly 60% efficiency.  This is not catastrophic, but is several points below what I expected and will result in a beer that is closer to 4% ABV instead of 5% ABV.  This is frustrating because local malt is going to cost more, it just is.  But if it is less efficient and you have to purchase even more of it, it will make your brew day noticeably more expensive.  I know this is something that FarmBoy is working on and I anticipate that over time, their moisture content will go down and their cleaning process will improve, which will both result in more efficient grain over time.  So I would not write them off for this yet, as I expect it will improve.
  • The wort smelled fantastic!  The grain had a nice fresh breadiness to it.  While it boiled and as it started to ferment, it was kicking off a lovely aroma.  I am definitely looking forward to seeing if this will cary through to the finished beer and how it will taste.

I will post again in a few weeks once it is done fermenting and has been transferred into a keg, cooled, and carbonated.  At that point I will have some tasting notes so that we can talk about how the beer turned out from a flavor perspective, instead of only looking at the numbers and brew day observations.  If it turns out well, I will also send it off to a few competitions to get some BJCP feedback on the beer.

If you have any questions about the use of locally sourced malts or want to know more about Farm Boy Farms, you can leave a reply in the comments below and I will answer what I can or I will get Dan from Farm Boy to fill in with any details that I don’t know.