What the hell is the supply chain? (and why should I care about it?)

In the first of a two-part deep dive, Matt Curtis unpacks the intricacies of the craft beer supply chain


Where does your beer come from? I mean really come from. I imagine if you’re reading this then you already have a fundamental understanding of how beer is made and which ingredients are used in its production; that the vast majority of beers made today are composed of hops, malted grain, yeast and water, and that through fermentation they also contain alcohol, and carbon dioxide. But the reality is that the process of brewing is just one in a great many steps involved in getting fresh, tasty beer into your glass.

The notion of brewing – a largely industrial process that for many small breweries is also a demanding, physical task – has been heavily romanticised by writers such as myself over the past few decades. It’s because of this that I feel the true scale and importance of the supply chain that allows it to function has been hidden from view for most beer drinkers. It’s simple enough to talk about rows of golden barley, and strings of verdant hop bines as it is the process of brewing itself, and the miracle of fermentation, but less so when it comes to the nitty gritty that makes the brewing industry really tick. Are you genuinely interested in where all that cardboard, glass and aluminium beer is packaged in comes from? How about chemical procurement? Who wants to know about carbon dioxide supply? Yes, it’s pretty dull, but also absolutely essential in getting that beer into your hands.

Consumers are increasingly interested in where the products they consume come from

Although the beer supply chain in all of its glory is not terribly interesting, I feel now more than ever we should be showing an interest in it. For a while now I’ve been following other strands of food and drink writing that look at, for example, where coffee beans are grown and how they’re procured and distributed, to the logistics surrounding the grapes used for wine production, and how the meat and vegetables we put on our tables every day gets there. Consumers are increasingly interested in where the products they consume come from, and the impact that supply chain has on the planet and our environment.

But I don’t see this in beer – at least not yet – and I think it’s high time this is a conversation we started to explore. We drink beer because it’s delicious, and makes us happy. But being a modern consumer also comes with the responsibility of understanding how that product got in your hands in the first place, and ensuring that your hard earned money goes to those who also consider the production of what they make with that same level of responsibility.

In this two part series I’m going to delve into the complexities of beer’s supply chain that keeps our glasses filled to the brim with our favourite beverage. It’s my belief that by increasing our understanding of said supply chain, it will only serve to enhance our enjoyment of every last can, bottle, cask and keg, and help ensure that beer – like all other industries that put a strain on this planet’s resources – becomes more sustainable in the process. It may at first appear dull on the surface, but I honestly believe that the more you explore each and every process involved in the production of beer, the more interesting it becomes.

No Barley, No Beer

Before beer is brewed, it is grown. Beer doesn’t just come from the brewhouse, it comes from the ground. Hops and barley (before it undergoes the malting process, which we’ll get to shortly) are the product of industrial agriculture; a multi-billion pound industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people globally. As beer's most expensive ingredients they are talked about frequently, but the sheer scale that goes into their production is greater than you have probably imagined.

A good way to examine the beer supply chain is to look at its ingredients individually. Barley in particular is fascinating to explore, because it goes through a great many hands and processes before it finds its way to a brewery. Even before it makes it into a field, it must be bred, manufactured and distributed to farmers by a plant breeder. Beer’s journey doesn’t start in the mind of a talented brewmaster, but on a petri-dish in a lab.

Barley, like hops, is a food product. And the process of growing a food-safe product is arduous and expensive. In the majority of countries, including the UK, it takes at least five years worth of plant breeding trials before a new variety becomes viable for the malting process. And, as I said earlier, all of this work occurs before this grain makes it to the malthouse, let alone the brewhouse.

Crops in the UK that do not pass food standards become animal feed

“The main reason there isn’t a lot of discussion around the supply chain is because it’s so complex,” Zach Gaines, national marketing and sales manager for US-based plant breeder Limagrain Cereal Seeds (LCS), tells me. “An ingredient is being exchanged between multiple partners in a supply chain, each changing and shaping the ingredient while they have it. Actually understanding everything that happens over this period is staggering.”

While barley varieties such as Maris Otter and Golden Promise are still held in high regard by brewers due their excellent flavour, and high technical performance in the brewing process, they are outdated in terms of a modern cereal crop. Plant breeders like LCS are constantly looking to develop new varieties in order to offer farmers higher yields and better performance, thus supporting the beginning of the supply chain. The average barley variety, after the arduous development process, usually only sticks around for five years before it’s replaced by a newer variety. Examples such as Maris Otter (which has been cultivated in the UK for over 50 years) are anomalous in this respect.

And as much as Maris Otter is loved by breweries around the world, farmers do not think about it as fondly. It is difficult to grow, requiring demanding conditions and yielding poorly. Crops in the UK that do not pass food standards become animal feed.

Which is why companies like LCS – right at the beginning of the beer supply chain – develop new varieties. LCS Genie was trialled in 2013, and has since become immensely popular with the boom of craft maltsters in the US. These are small, independent businesses (that are not unlike the craft breweries they serve) working directly with farmers to produce the best raw materials they can, and then turn them into something brewers are eager to make beer with. If you’re ever lucky enough to try Cold, a keller lager from Denver’s TRVE Brewing, you’ll be able to taste Genie in action, in all its biscuity glory.

Closer to home, manufacturers such as Simpson’s Malt based in Berwick upon Tweed work directly with plant breeders, grain merchants and farmers to obtain barley of the highest possible quality to turn into malt. When you consider that by now the chain of getting beer into your hands is already four stages long, and that we’ve only looked at a single ingredient, you can see how complex the beer supply chain really is. Something well worth dwelling upon when you consider a beer made with the best ingredients the brewer can get their hands on as being “expensive.”

“We feel most of our customers are interested [in the supply chain] but perhaps the malting industry went through a period of being a little shy or even ignorant of where the barley came from,” Simpson’s vice chair Richard Simpson tells me. “For a period of time, the primary goals were availability and price, which perhaps doesn’t lend itself to other value driven things such as quality, traceability, and sustainability.”

In Hops We Trust

Like barley, new hop varieties must also undertake arduous trials before they are deemed both food safe and commercially viable by agricultural bodies and farmers alike. They are also far more difficult to grow than barley, with plants usually taking three years to reach maturity and begin to yield hop flowers that can be used to make beer. In Herefordshire, one of the UK’s largest hop-growing regions, Brook House Hops works directly with breweries, directly linking them to this part of the supply chain and making it more transparent in the process.

“Pre 2015 buying hops from a specific farm wasn’t common practice, but craft beer has changed this and it is now becoming a differentiating factor,” Brook House Hops’ marketing manager Andy Garbutt tells me. “Giving consumers more information about what is in their beer allows them to make a conscious choice about how they spend their beer money.”

Presently England only produces around 2% of global hop yields, whereas around 80% are produced in near equal amounts by the United States and Germany (although the US has marginally outgrown their German counterparts in recent years owing to increased demand for the bold, aromatic varieties it has focused on cultivating).

Looking at hops and barley alone is just scratching the surface of how complex the supply chain is

Home grown hops have lagged behind other producers for a number of years due to a number of contributing factors. Diseases such as verticillium wilt wiped out swathes of crops over the past century, causing many farmers to stop growing hops altogether. Meanwhile, hop merchants – the historic link in the chain between farmers and brewers – haven’t invested in new processing technology, or the development of new aromatic varieties, as quickly as their foreign counterparts. This is where farmers like Brook House have stepped in, disrupting the supply chain by making these investments themselves. A great example of how a stronger focus on improving the supply chain and greater transparency to it is of benefit to both brewers, and us as drinkers.

“Clear labelling that lists not just the different types of hop, but their farming origins will provide much needed support to hop farmers, will educate consumers and will back up brewer claims of sourcing quality local ingredients,” Garbutt adds. “This in turn will build goodwill, satisfaction and brand preference with customers who need to know what goes into their beer. Good news for the customer and the breweries.”

As you’re probably beginning to understand, looking at hops and barley alone is just scratching the surface of how complex the supply chain that keeps the beer industry going really is. We’re yet to consider the development and supply of yeast, water treatment, stainless steel fabrication, the folks that make all those different coloured hose pipes that look so good in brewery photographs... The list is almost endless. And the cost of which all adds up to what you pay for your pint.

In part two, I’m going to consider how the supply chain directly impacts how much beer costs us, and how a greater understanding of the efforts needed to get it to you should probably make us reconsider all of those cut price supermarket deals that do little to feed back that value into the supply chain, and provide the people within it a decent living. You’ll have to stay tuned for next month's issue for that – until then, remember to think about all the hard work required from farmers and maltsters to ensure the beer in your hands is as good as it can possibly be.

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