Till hardly a decade ago, Boduram Yadav knew jau (barley) as mainly something you fed to cows, buffaloes or camels. But now for him, it is more a crop whose grain is malted and used by big brewing firms to make beer.
“Earlier, I grew jau in 5-7 bigha, with the daana (grain) and bhusa (straw) from it mostly consumed in-house by our animals. This year, I have cultivated jau on 32 bigha to supply almost the entire daana to SABMiller company”, says Yadav, who farms 65 bighas (about 17 acres) at Chimanpura village in Jaipur’s Chomu tehsil.
Last year, the Indian subsidiary of the $27 billion London-headquartered brewer – owning brands like Foster’s, Haywards 5000 and Royal Challenge – procured 41,000-odd tonnes of barley from over 9,500 farmers growing it on nearly 31,700 acres. 80 per cent were from Rajasthan, the rest spread across Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
“This year, we are targeting 50,000 tonnes, which is 60 per cent of our requirement. The remaining quantity we will purchase as direct malt from local malters such as Barmalt and PMV Maltings”, informs Arvind Verma, who heads SABMiller India’s malt barley development plan.
Malting involves soaking barley in water for 25-26 hours to allow germination, which activate certain “amylase” enzymes that convert the raw starch in the grain into fermentable sugars (glucose and maltose). The germination, which happens for some 96 hours, is then arrested through kiln-drying for another 40-42 hours. The resultant malt – 80 tonnes from every 100 tonnes of barley – is what the breweries ferment into alcohol by adding yeast.
Indian farmers have traditionally grown jau that is, however, of feed rather than malt-grade. Out of the country’s 1.75-1.8 million tonnes annual production, just over a fifth is bought by brewers and malt-based beverage companies.
Beer makers require barley with high carbohydrate (65-75 per cent) and low protein (9-11 per cent) content, as against 60-65 per cent and 12-14 per cent respectively in normal feed-grade grains. Equally important is “diastatic power”, which measures the extent of starch-converting enzymes in any grain. This power is only 130-150 units in feed barleys, compared to 250-400 for malt-grade grains.
“The ultimate purpose is to get more fermentable sugars extract. This is 65-70 per cent of the malt weight in feed-grade, as opposed to 75-80 per cent for malt-grade barleys”, explains Mahesh Shrimali, a former breeder at the Rajasthan Agricultural University’s Durgapura research station and currently consultant with SABMiller India.
Farmers like Yadav are growing K-551, RD-2660, RD-2035 and RD-2775 that are publicly-bred, malt-grade varieties yielding over 75 per cent extract.
“We ensure supply of pure certified seeds of these to farmers. Our agronomists also provide advice on how much seed to plant, what fertilisers and pesticides to apply, and other package of practices. Besides, we undertake to purchase their entire produce, subject to our quality standards of maximum moisture, foreign matter or broken/thin grains limits being met. And we are paying Rs 1,300 per quintal, more than the government’s minimum support price of Rs 1,150”, adds Verma.
Brewers are also trying to get farmers to cultivate “two-row” barleys. These varieties – having two rows of seeds on the main axis of each spike (ear-head) – have bolder grains than conventional “six-row” barleys.
“Two-row barleys produce less grains per ear-head. But the average weight of thousand grains, at around 45 gm, is more than the 40 gm in six-row varieties”, points out RPS Verma, principal scientist at the Indian Institute of Wheat & Barley Research in Karnal, Haryana.
His institute, in 2006, released a two-row barley DWRUB-52 that came out of a contract research project sponsored by United Breweries (UB). This variety is being farmed in about 35,000 acres by UB and SABMiller. UB had earlier also co-developed with Punjab Agricultural University a two-row barley variety VJM-201, named after its now-beleaguered chief Vijay Mallya.
“Jau for us has become a commercial crop, which it wasn’t earlier. Assured price and lower irrigation requirement (4-5 using sprinklers, against 7-8 in wheat) has made this so”, notes Yadav.