Changing The World One Bag Of Regen Malt At A Time

May 13, 2024, by Mick Wust

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Changing The World One Bag Of Regen Malt At A Time

“We wanted to use beer as a catalyst for change.”

What if I told you a brewery could shrink its carbon footprint by 30 percent just by changing one ingredient in its beer?

Even before looking at the other ingredients in beer, or the energy used to run a brewhouse and keep a cool-room running around the clock, or everything else that goes into beer production, consider that: change one ingredient, reduce carbon footprint by a third.

The change? Switch from conventionally farmed grain to organic, regeneratively farmed grain grown without synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. That’s it. One ingredient. Huge impact.*

We’ve written about malt made from regeneratively-farmed barley (or regen malt) in other articles, but it’s the sort of topic that really feels like it deserves the oft-used term, beer for good. Thankfully, there's a growing number of reasons for us to return to the topic as more producers and brewers get on board.

Another such reason has been cropping up in drinkers' hands in recent weeks: Stone & Wood’s Northern Rivers Beer (or NRB). On one level, it's a lager that tastes like a lager, but on another it's flying the flag for regen farming.

Now, this beer itself isn’t going to make a ground-shaking difference; you’ll see it’s not even the best thing Stone & Wood are doing with regen malt. But it acts as a proof-of-concept to show brewers and punters that good beer can be made this way, which in turn spreads the good word of regen farming. And that could change the world.

It may sound like I’m being overly dramatic, but I'm really not. Regen farming is a big deal; just wait till you reach the final quote of this article.

So before we get to the beer, let’s take a moment to get straight what this regenerative stuff is.


What is regen farming?

A grain farmer talking regen methods with Jahdon Quinlan, Stone & Wood's Sustainability Leader.
A grain farmer talking regen methods with Jahdon Quinlan, Stone & Wood's Sustainability Leader.

 

In Australia, more than 25 million hectares are used for farming crops. For better or worse, the way that land is farmed has a massive impact on our world. As things stand, the majority of our food is farmed using industrial methods that can wreak havoc on the ground, the air, and the water.

Monocropping – growing just one kind of plant across huge expanses of land – is an efficient way to produce a lot of crops, so in many ways it’s easier and more profitable. But since nature is all about balanced ecosystems, monocropping is an ongoing battle of farmer vs nature. And in this battle, everything has a knock-on effect.

Nitrogen-based fertilisers help grow a bigger crop… and release a gas 300 times worse than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere. Spraying insecticide kills off pests… as well as other insects. Spraying herbicides kills off weeds… and destroys the biodiversity of plants that protect the soil. Oh, and these chemicals can pollute the water and soil, which damages ecosystems further, and makes future crops harder to grow.

Such "solutions" can create more problems: dried-out dead soil, loss of biodiversity, and turbo-charged climate change. And these "efficient", "easier", "profitable" ways of farming are making it harder to grow food with each passing year.** 

But if industrial farming can be viewed as a battle of farmer vs nature, regenerative farming is a partnership between farmer and nature. Regen practices go beyond "do no harm" and work to improve the soil, build healthy ecosystems, and undo some of the damage we’ve caused – all while successfully growing crops.

Stu Whytcross has been farming since he was a kid, and also works with other farmers in his role as founder and director of Voyager Craft Malt. In the documentary Re_Generation***, he talks about the importance of soil with an almost existential reverence.

 

 

“For all of mankind’s achievements, we owe our existence to six inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains," he says. "We can’t do anything about the rain, but that six inches of topsoil? We’ve got direct control over that.”

Stu learned conventional farming practices from his dad. But, in his adult life, he came to question the way they’d always done things. Nowadays, he’s convinced there’s a better way to farm.

“[Soil is] an ecosystem. And if you look at the way we’ve been treating that in a conventional farm, with the amount of chemicals and synthetic fertilisers, it’s crazy to think that that’s just been normal. So for me, regenerative farming is all about growing the soil rather than growing a crop.”

Some of the most common practices in regenerative crop farming include:

  • Natural fertilisation and pest management: instead of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, farmers rely on organic matter and natural fertilisers, and manage pests primarily using predators and "good bugs"; for example, protecting rather than poisoning bee populations.
  • Cover crops: farmers plant other plants alongside the main crop, which aerates the soil, adds organic matter to the ground and improves water retention. The land gets more fertile, the crops are more climate-resistant, and the cover crops pull literal tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere.
  • Crop rotation: while monocropping depletes the soil of nutrients, crop rotation adds a variety of organic matter back into the ground and improves soil fertility. It also breaks the cycle of pests that prefer certain plants – no plagues, no pesticides.

None of these are new methods; farmers have been using them for thousands of years because they work so well. But they largely slipped away as industrial agriculture took over to increase food production. Regen agriculture is about bringing these practices back on a wider scale than was possible before, and with modern science and technologies to make them even more effective.

 

See how the ground at Ryefield Hops is all lush vegetation rather than bare soil? That's cover cropping. (Picture: Jack Toohey talking with Jade McManus in the Re_Generation documentary.)
An example of cover cropping can be found at Ryefield Hops in Bemboka. (Picture: Jack Toohey & Jade McManus in the Re_Generation documentary.)

 

It’s not about looking to the past. It’s about looking to the future, with regen farming practices promising better crops during harsh climate conditions, healthier soil and ecosystems, and, if done in time, the reversal of much of the damage that’s been done. Surely this beats the "short-term gain, long term pain" approach.

Stu certainly thinks so.

“I’ve been farming since I was 12, and seen a lot a different farming systems. Regenerative agriculture is the way forward,” Stu says. And with Voyager Craft Malt, he’s put his money where his mouth is.

“We’ve now got the largest offering of organic malts by any malthouse [23 in total] and I expect this to get larger as demand continues to increase in this space… We’re constantly looking for ways to move more of our malt offerings across to grains grown on regenerative farms.”


Regen malt from the ground up

Caolan Vaughan, Head Brewer at Stone & Wood, is keen to see beer as part of the climate solution. (Screenshot from the Re_Generation documentary.)

Caolan Vaughan, Head Brewer at Stone & Wood, is keen to see beer as part of the climate solution. (Screenshot from the Re_Generation documentary.)

 

Thirty years ago, if you’d asked a punter: “Where does beer come from?” they likely would have replied along the lines of the pub, the bottleshop, or – at a push – the brewery. Thanks in part to the craft beer movement, many of us have now shifted our view of beer’s origin back rather further: to the ground. Beer is an agricultural product, so the way barley and hops are grown has an impact on how a beer turns out.

The flip-side is true, too: the type of malt brewers choose to buy creates demand for what types of barley will be grown and how it will be farmed. And, with four million hectares of barley farmed in Australia – a large proportion of that grown for beer production – brewers are in a position to make a real difference by voting with their dollar.

Like most brewers, Caolan Vaughan cares about using high quality malt in his beer. During his time as head brewer at Stone & Wood, he’s come to extend that passion further to include caring about where and how his malt was grown.

“Brewers aren’t as connected to barley as I wish they were,” he says. “In the sexy hop world, there’s always been a much larger connection. But you can’t make beer without really great barley. It’s kind of the unsung hero of the brewing world.”

Caolan first heard of regen farming five years ago when he saw the documentary 2040. Stone & Wood had already begun using some organic ingredients by that time, but now the team got talking about going further and using malt made from regen grain.

There was just one problem: sourcing it.

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“There was nothing available in the market,” Caolan says. “There wasn’t a malt, there wasn’t a maltster that was producing this or could get access to it.

“[Regen malt] didn’t really exist.”

Undeterred, Stone & Wood approached regen grain growers from Southern Cross Agriculture. Securing a trial amount of barley from them, the brewery team then asked Stu at Voyager to micro-malt it as a kind of test.

“We had to go out of our way, and sort of tee up little partnerships," Caolan explains. "We basically had to contract it. ‘Malt this malt for us.’

“So when I say it didn’t exist – we had to make it exist. And we’re just lucky to have some great relationships with some suppliers that were interested to do this."

To say Stu "malts the malt" is accurate enough, and yet somehow doesn’t give the full picture of what Stu does. It’s a long journey from a seed of grain to a sip of beer, and there are many people involved along the way… but not many of them have such an intimate knowledge of how it tracks all the way through.

We’ve told the inspiring story of Voyager before, so I won’t rehash everything that Stu and co-founder Brad Woodman have built, and how everything they do is shaped around maximising sustainability and beer quality.

 

Not many people understand the entire journey from grain to glass as much as Stu Whytcross, founder and director of Voyager Craft Malt.
Not many people understand the entire journey from grain to glass as thoroughly as Stu Whytcross.

 

But it’s worth pointing out that as well as his involvement in the malting – and the researching, trialling and honing of methods that goes along with it – Stu acts as the middleman between those who grow the grain and those who make beer with it, and has a deep understanding of both the farming side and the brewing side.

“Essentially, [my role is] finding growers working in the regenerative agriculture space, and working alongside them to grow quality barley suitable for malting. Then working with the team at Stone & Wood to malt this to their desired specifications.”

Even today, this is not some autopilot transaction; Stone & Wood have specific needs for their malt, so Voyager still does bespoke malting of regen grain for them, albeit on a larger scale than that first trial batch.

In 2020, those initial conversations led to Stone & Wood making their first beer with regen malt at their Byron Bay brewery. But it wouldn’t be the last.


A lager to lead the way

Caolan's proud of the work they've done with Northern Rivers Beer. (Screenshot from the Re_Generation documentary.)


 

The Stone & Wood team aren’t farmers or climate scientists, but they have their own way to push regen farming.

“Let’s use the ingredients in beer,” Caolan says, recounting some of their early conversations. “We’re a brewery. Beer is sexy. It’s a marketable product to help bring [regen farming] to the mainstream.”

As well as starting to quietly incorporate regen malt into other beers, they decided to make a beer that would stand as a shining beacon, showcasing mostly regen ingredients to tell the story of regen farming.

Not that this would be the first beer to be made with regen ingredients; other breweries use ingredients from Voyager Craft Malt and Ryefield Hops, with one recent example Five Barrel’s Organic Hazy - a midstrength core range beer rife with sustainability measures.

But Stone & Wood knew they had the chance to do something more than just improve their own sustainability; the team wanted to use their influence to bring other people into the fold. With the brewery’s size, their resources, and their broad appeal, they knew they were in a special position to make an impact bigger than themselves.

“We wanted to use beer as a catalyst for change.”

 

Five Barrel's Organic Hazy has sustainability credentials out the wazoo - including being made from all regen malt and hops. 

 

Since they were looking to reach as many people as possible, it was obvious what kind of beer it should be: a clean, approachable lager. And so, in late 2022, the brewery started the first trials of what would become NRB.

“We had to convince the business that this was a good decision. And that wasn’t a hard decision – we have quite a lot of like-minded people. But [regen ingredients] currently come with a cost.”

Although they’d been purchased by Kirin-owned Lion the previous year, the new owners had agreed that Stone & Wood would maintain a strong focus on sustainability, so the project was given the go-ahead, viewed as "an investment, over the long-term.”

With their pipeline in place to obtain regen malt, the brewery looked to secure regen hops for the beer. They landed on Ryefield Hops, where grower Jade McManus, alongside business partners Karen and Morgan Taylor, brings their background in environmental science to bear in a huge way: think natural weed management, organic fertiliser lovingly provided by worms and sheep, companion planting, ladybug paradise.

(Like Voyager, Ryefield would become accredited as Certified Sustainable; they actually met the stringent environmental standards required even before their audit and certification.)

The beer’s final recipe consists of at least 70 percent Certified Sustainable Regenerative Pale Malt, grown on Scott Goodsell’s family farm in Trundle NSW (“We’re literally buying off one farm’s barley,” Caolan says) and malted by Voyager; the rest of the malt bill is made up of pale malt from Barrett Burston Maltings in Pinkenba. And all the hops are from Ryefield’s 12 acre farm in Bemboka.

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But ingredients are only one part of making a beer; it still took Stone & Wood brewers ten months of trials to reach a place where they were happy with the beer. Without big and bold flavours to hide behind, they took great care to fine-tune the subtle nuances of the lager to ensure they were showcasing the ingredients at their best.

“It’s been one of the harder beers we’ve ever developed,” Caolan says. “It’s less about what the recipe is and more about nailing the process: combining great brewing processes with great simple ingredients.

“We have learnt lots about making simple, clean, elegant and delicious beers – which is what I think we have now with NRB.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever made a beer that’s as refined and delicate. It’s a beautiful expression of malt and hop in its simplest form. But in its simplicity, there’s perfection.”

But as much as he’s happy with the beer itself, Caolan gets more excited about the opportunity to spread the good news of regen malt to both punters and brewers.

“It’s nice to showcase the largest-by-weight ingredient, and really, the one that has the most benefit to supporting [sustainability].”


Impact and influence

Caolan's proud of the work they've done with Northern Rivers Beer.

 

Northern Rivers Beer is not the whole story of what Stone & Wood are doing in the regen space.

Each batch of NRB uses 550kg of regen malt; at time of writing, the brewery had released two batches and had another two in tank. That’s 2,200kg of malt made from regen barley instead of conventionally farmed barley. Two thumbs up.

But, back in late 2022, when they started trials for NRB, they were also keen to begin incorporating a little regen malt into their core beers. They worked with Voyager to have it malted to spec (equivalent to pale malt ~4 EBC) so it would slide seamlessly into their recipes. Since then, each batch of core range beer has included a bag 25kg bag of regen malt.

Now, that doesn’t sound like much. In fact, it’s only about three percent of the malt bill of a batch of Pacific Ale. But the thing is, Stone & Wood make a lot of Pacific Ale.

“We brew about twelve [65hL] brews of Pacific Ale a day, seven days a week,” Caolan says. “It adds up!”

And, while Pacific Ale makes up the bulk of Stone & Wood’s volume, every one of their beers now includes regen malt in the recipe.

“It’s starting to get to a significant impact,” Caolan adds. “Any beer that we make now [at the Murwillumbah and Byron Bay breweries], doesn’t matter what it is – our Counter Culture range, anything – if it falls under the Stone & Wood logo, the first ingredient on the recipe is always CS malt.

“It’s now a given – doesn’t matter what we’re doing. And that’s not going to change.” 

It adds up. In 2023, Stone & Wood used approximately 70 tonnes of regen malt from Voyager (from around 100 tonnes of barley). And, in 2024, that number is more like 100 tonnes of malt (by the end of the year) from 130 tonnes of barley. Furthermore, once the team can deal with some supply and handling constraints, the recipe tweak will filter out to other Lion-owned breweries making Pacific Ale, so the amount will increase again.

The brewery team is keen to transition to more and more regen malt, but there is currently a couple of challenges to using it, all based around the supply. Firstly, because there isn’t yet enough available for a brewery the size of Stone & Wood to rely on for 100 percent of their malt needs.

“We’d love to see the regen percentage go up,” Caolan says, “but it can’t happen instantly. We need to plan these sorts of things. Giving forecast [of how much malt they’d need] years ahead so we actually have farmers having enough land, having enough seed to grow.”

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Secondly, the limited amount available currently means the supply is often from a single region. This single origin malt is of a great quality, but unlike commercial malt, it isn’t blended with barley from other regions for more consistency and predictability. Just like vintages of wine and single origin coffee beans, single origin malt is distinctive and experiences some variation season to season, which can make it difficult for use in a core range beer.

However, it is becoming easier for breweries to access regen malt than it was for Stone & Wood in the beginning, and as more farmers around the country begin to grow barley using regenerative practices, blended regen malt will become available.

“It takes time, and we’re just on that journey.”

Stone & Wood are keen to increase the percentage of regen malt in their beers since, as Caolan says in the Re_Generation documentary: “There’s been no negative impact to the beer, and only a positive impact to the community and planet.”

For now, NRB is an effective way for them to get the word out, using a large percentage of regen malt in a (relatively) small amount of beer. And as Pacific Ale (along with other Stone & Wood beers) uses a small percentage of a large amount, it plays a significant role in increasing the demand for regen malt by the sheer volume it uses.

 

The sheer volume of Pacific Ale that comes out of Stone & Wood's breweries means they use a LOT of regen malt.
The sheer volume of Pacific Ale that comes out of Stone & Wood's breweries means they use a lot of regen malt.

 

Whatever your thoughts on ownership within beer, Stone & Wood are big influencers; possibly even more so because of their ownership.

As Caolan says: “I’ve seen some of the great benefits of our recent purchase: Lion purchasing Stone & Wood, and Fermentum. We now have a large vehicle for change, for influence.”

When they move, things move around them. And here they’re moving in ways that help farmers make the shift to regenerative practices.

“We believe in the benefits of [supporting regen farming]. And we have a vehicle that has enough momentum behind it to actually influence… [and] the long, long term goal of bringing it into the mainstream and making it the norm.

“I appreciate it doesn’t happen overnight. But chipping away, momentum builds.”

In the years he’s been partnering with the Stone & Wood crew, Stu at Voyager has certainly seen growth – literally more acres of land dedicated to growing barley in ways that are beneficial to the soil and climate rather than harmful.

“Their commitment and passion in this space is infectious,” Stu says, “and it's been great to see volumes of our regen malt increase.”

For his part, he’s helping encourage other brewers to see the merits of transitioning to regen malt – starting with the huge reduction in their carbon footprint.

“Moving from conventionally grown malted barley, to our organic grown barley would see a brewery’s total carbon emissions reduced by 30 percent,” he says.

“Clients that come and visit these farms and meet the grower and see firsthand work they are doing to build soil health, and the positive impact that is having on the farm and its produce, are all making a commitment to move to switching to more sustainably grown grains.”

This all takes time. While it would be incredible for every brewery to switch over all regen malt immediately, there’s not yet enough available for the entire industry to transition overnight.

But remember, as the demand for regen malt grows, the supply grows. More brewers using regen malt (and punters drinking those beers) means more land being used for regen farming - better soil health, better farmland, and more climate-change resistant harvests. Not to mention helping the earth and climate actually recover.

Drinking regen beer does make a difference.


The Beginning

Stu at Voyager loves seeing the volume of regen malt increase - and there's plenty of scope for it to keep increasing.
Stu at Voyager loves seeing the volume of regen malt increase - and there's plenty of scope for it to keep increasing.

 

As I wrote above, NRB isn’t the whole story. But, for many, it could be the beginning of the story.

For punters, it may be the first time they hear about regen farming, and may begin them on a journey where they learn about the benefits, the possibilities, the hope.

For brewers, it’s a proof of concept or prototype.

Stone & Wood aren’t claiming to be saviours here. But they do have reach, a loud voice, and deep pockets. For a brewery of their size and influence to use their clout to evangelise about regen farming – not just with words, but with beer – that could be a game-changer.

“We’re sowing the seeds of change,” Caolan says. “Overwhelmingly positive, and one of the most engaging projects I’ve ever worked on, and probably ever will.

“It’s not very often you work on a project that truly has the potential for the betterment of civilisation.”


*Ryefield Hops’ 12 acres of regenerative hop farming sees around 100 tonnes of carbon drawn from the atmosphere each year thanks to their cover cropping.

**This isn’t hypothetical. Climate change is already driving down farm’s profits. According to the 2023 National Statement on Climate Change and Agriculture: “In Australia, changes in seasonal conditions from 2001 to 2020 have reduced annual average farm profits by 23% or around $29,200 per farm.”

***Re_Generation is a 40-minute documentary on YouTube that sees filmmaker Jack Toohey travel to Ryefield Hops, Voyager Craft Malt, and Stone & Wood to learn about regenerative farming through the lens of beer.

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