NC State Extension Publications

FAQ for distillers/brewers/maltsters wishing to use North Carolina-grown grain in their product

1. Which grain crops grown in North Carolina could be used in distilling or brewing alcohol?

Corn, wheat (usually soft red winter), barley, and rye are grains that are typically grown in the state. These crops are all in the grass family of plants. Corn is planted in the spring in early to mid-April, and is harvested between mid-August and early October. Wheat, barley, and rye are small grains that are planted in the fall (September to early November) in North Carolina, grow through the winter and are harvested in late spring (late-May to late June). Specific planting and harvest dates depend on factors such as the farm region and geography, soil types, crop rotation, and variety. These grains are primarily grown on conventional farms (in other words, farms that are not certified organic), but there are a few thousand acres of organic production in the state. Soft red winter wheat is traditionally grown in North Carolina, but there are a few varieties of hard winter wheat available that perform well in the Southeast. Soft red winter varieties generally have a lower protein level than hard winter wheats. There is still a significant amount of non-GM corn grown in the state, and any certified organic crop is by definition not genetically modified. There are no GM small grains commercially available at this time. Heirloom varieties of all these crops can be grown in our state, but yield is usually significantly lower than more modern varieties which have been bred for high yields and resistance to the common plant diseases and insect pests which are prevalent in our warm, humid climate. In general, we expect organic yields to be 10-20% lower than conventional, and for heirloom to be 20-50% lower. Average conventional yields for NC are in the table below, but individual farm yields will depend on soil type, weather, and management. These yields are often called “truck weight” and are the yield that comes off the field, measured by weighing trucks hauling the grain.

Crop Average Yield, based on 2013-2014 state average yields (bu/acre) Bushel Weight (lb/bu)
Barley 71 48
Wheat (soft red) 58 60
Rye 30 56
Corn 132 56

2. How are these grain crops grown?

These crops can be grown conventionally or organically (restrictions on crop rotation, fertility, field amendments, and pesticides). All of these crops need adequate fertility to achieve good yields. Soil tests can let a farmer know what macro and micro nutrients might need to be applied to the field. Nitrogen is often the limiting nutrient and many types of fertilizers (urea, manures, etc.) can be applied prior to planting. In small grains, a top-dress (fertilizer applied on top of the young crop) is applied in early spring and sometimes again when the top leaf of the crop has emerged. Organic crops are fertilized with manures, cover crops, and composts. If the crop is not organic, seed may be treated to prevent seed rots or insect feeding and the field is likely treated with herbicide just before or after planting to reduce weed competition with the main crop. Sometimes a second round of herbicides is needed in the spring. Insecticides or fungicides may be needed during the growing period to prevent economic yield loss to insects or disease and the farmer (and their advisers) make those decisions. Organic production must not use treated seed or conventional pesticides, and must rely on rotation, crop health, variety resistance, cultivation, and planting and harvest timing to achieve a successful harvest.

3. How is the grain crop harvested and what happens next?

All of these grain crops are harvested with a combine harvester, which harvests and threshes the grain in one operation, usually when the grain is between 10 and 15% moisture content (maltsters and distillers want 11 and 13% moisture). Combines can be set to blow out some trash and grain kernels that are lightweight (which may indicate disease or insect damage to the kernel). From the combine, the grain can be hauled to storage bins or to a grain cleaner (or third party storage) or to the buyer.

4. What does storing the grain entail and who can do that?

Often a farmer can store his own grain in storage bins for a short time, though some farmers are able to store grain for longer periods of time, up to 10 months. In storage, the grain needs to be kept cool and dry in order to prevent molds and insect feeding. Remember, corn is harvested when the weather is still warm and small grains may need to be stored through the whole summer. Warm, moist weather makes successful grain storage more difficult. Powerful fans in the storage bins are used right after harvest to dry the grain and reduce moisture content in the grain by a percentage point or two. The fans are used periodically to cool the grain mass and prevent mold. There are both organic and conventional insecticides that can be applied to stored grain. Some farmers cannot store grain and it will be up to the buyer to have storage capacity.

5. I need grain to be very clean before I can use it. Who can clean the grain to my specifications?

Grain “cleaned” when harvested by the combine, is called “field clean”, but most maltster, brewers, or distillers need grain to be free of nearly all broken kernels, dirt, chaff, and other trash. Most farmers are not set up to clean their grain to this level, so the grain must be hauled to a specialized grain cleaner. A grain cleaning facility will run the grain through fans, sorting tables, and magnets to clean out debris, trash, and the smallest or lightest kernels. These facilities can usually bag the cleaned grain in 50 pound bags or 1 ton totes. Then, the grain can be shipped to the end user. This cleaning is conducted at a cost of approximately $1/bushel. Additional fees for bags and pallets are also added to the cost.

6. What about pricing and contracts? How do I work this out?

Pricing and contracts must, of course, be worked out with the farmer or grain handler you are working with. Contracts are not common in North Carolina, but are an option that can be pursued. Pricing needs to take into consideration the current market value of the grain, the special effort a farmer has to put into producing a niche crop, the potential yield loss (organic, heirloom, etc.), and the cost of storage, shipping, and cleaning.

7. What happens if it turns out I cannot use the grain I asked a farmer to grow for me (because of low quality, protein, etc.)?

You should work out this scenario before any grain is planted, but try to make sure there is another market the crop can be funneled into, such as an animal feed market.

FAQ for farmers wishing to enter the local distilling/brewing/malting market

1. What is the market?

Micro- and small scale distilleries, beer brewers, and malt houses are growing in number in North Carolina. These businesses focus on high-quality beers and alcohols and local markets. Many of these businesses are interested in using North Carolina-grown, or “local”, grains in their products. Grains of interest include barley, corn, wheat, rye, and possibly sorghum or milo. For breweries, the small grains are almost always malted. Malting is a way of transforming the starches in the seed to sugars for the yeast to convert to alcohol. Grain is stimulated to germinate, then dried and cleaned (the radical is cut off) in the malting process. Distilleries use un-malted corn and small grains, in larger quantities, to use to make alcohols such as whiskey, bourbon, gin, and vodka. Many distilleries and breweries are interested in non-gmo corn, organic grains, and heirloom varieties. These types of grains help give the business a niche in the alcohol market. Close to 8 million gallons of beer were brewed in 2013 by 120 small or micro-breweries in the state, using approximately 15 million pounds of malted barley, wheat, and rye. At this time, 16 small or micro-distilleries operating in North Carolina, with 10 more in various stages of planning and pre-production.

2. You mentioned niche crops like non-gmo, organic, and heirloom. How do these fit in the market? Also, what are quality expectations?

As we mentioned, many of the small breweries and distilleries are interested in grains that are a bit different from conventionally grown, feed-grade grains that are typically grown in North Carolina. First, there is a market for organically grown grains and non-gm corn. Distillery and brewery customers are excited about these types of products, and they command a higher price, with organic getting a greater premium over non-gmo. Heirloom corn and small grain varieties are also in demand with some brewers/distillers because of nostalgia, the perception of better flavor, and the niche in the market.

Second, quality expectations are much more stringent for grain produced for distillers/maltsters/brewers than feed-grade grains. Grains need to be harvested on time and the distiller/maltsters/brewer will need the grains dried down to about 12% moisture. Combines should be set to blow out lightweight or broken kernels. Grain, particularly small grains, may need to meet a certain protein range, and may be rejected if too high or too low, so fertility must be monitored more closely. The brewing market will be more particular than the distilling market, where some lower protein and slightly lower quality grain may be acceptable.

3. What varieties do well for this market?

Either conventionally grown or organically grown, sometimes certain varieties will be a better choice for growing for the brewing or distilling markets. For instance, the barley variety Thoroughbred is a good choice for malt market because it has good malting qualities, much better than nearly all other barley varieties that can be grown in North Carolina. Typically malting barley in the mid-west are spring 2-row varieties, meaning that each head has 2 rows of kernels and it is planted in the spring. Barley grown in North Carolina has always been 6-row (and winter) varieties, meaning there are 6 rows of kernels on each head, and is grown over the winter. Six-row barley kernels are generally smaller and less uniform than 2-row varieties, but the quality of some six-row winter barleys, particularly Thoroughbred, are adequate for malt production. However, brewers are accustomed to using 2-row malted barleys, but North Carolina brewers committed to using local grains have been enthusiastic about 6-row Thoroughbred. Endeavor is a 2-row winter barley that has performed adequately in VA and NC, but has susceptibility to powdery mildew and Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus. The USDA breeding program in North Carolina has been working on developing a 2-row malting barley that is better adapted to North Carolina.

Heirloom corn and wheat varieties are available and sometimes desired by the end user. These varieties generally do not have the disease and insect pest resistance that modern varieties have. They also have lower yield potential, and sometimes other issues such as a tendency to lodge, particularly in wheat. Locating seed sources for this market should be done well ahead of time as some varieties, such as heirlooms and even non-gmo varieties, may be difficult to find.

4. How do I enter market?

The best option would be to directly contact a brewer, maltster, or distiller who wants to purchase local grains. You will have to work out terms with them directly, including variety, quantity, quality specifications, cleaning, storage, delivery, and price. This market is very different from a traditional grain markets in that all these considerations should be made ahead of time and you will usually work directly with the buyer.

5. What do I need to do in terms of storage, cleaning, and delivery for this market?

Farmers should expect to store grain for at least a short time, and up to 10 months, to enter this market. Storage treatments, such as insecticides, can be used but consult with the buyer beforehand. Organic treatments, such as diatomaceous earth, are available also. Brewers and distillers need to use very clean, high quality grain to make their products. The grain will need to go to a grain cleaning facility with different screens, gravity table, and magnets. The brewers/distillers will need grain bagged into 50 pound bags or 1 ton totes. Then, they will need the grain delivered to their facilities.

6. What about pricing and contracts?

You will have to work out a pricing with the buyer, but consider what needs to be done to meet the market demand and be competitive. Pricing agreements should probably be worked out early, and acreage contracts may be a good option. The price for malt-quality or distilling-quality grain should give you a slight premium over the conventional or organic price, depending on the market. Consider the yield-loss for growing heirlooms, and the cost of cleaning, bagging, and delivery as well.


Extension Assistant
Crop and Soil Sciences
Associate Professor
Crop and Soil Sciences

Publication date: Dec. 1, 2014

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