Will Beer Help Virginia Diversify from a Coal Economy?

Matt Montalbano, Zondits staff, 7/14/2022

Coal mining has long been associated with the state of Virginia. But the state’s coal production has been in decline and Virginia is looking to stimulate and diversify its economy. InvestSWVA is a public-private campaign looking to assist the region’s transition away from coal and tobacco and toward new high-tech, high-wage jobs. Promoted business ventures include geothermal and solar solutions for data centers, and R&D and manufacturing for energy storage. Now, beer drinkers and local farmers are raising a glass together as local breweries and barley growers join the transition. Appalachian Grains, a Virginia specialty grain broker, has been influencing regional farmers to grow barley and connecting them with local breweries. The idea of this startup is to build upon the history of Virginia when livestock feed-grade barley was grown in fields before being replaced with higher-profiting cash crops, such as tobacco.

Malt-grade barley is a key ingredient in beer, but this special barley, defined by its lower grain protein content, is primarily sourced from the Great Plains, Western Canada and Europe. By growing barley locally, the Virginian farmers are seeing more economic output and the beer producers are eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from transporting the grains across the hemisphere. For this business model to work, Appalachian Grains needed to find the right breweries to partner with. The ideal partners recognize sustainability as a rising market trend in the craft beer world but also seek out local and fresh ingredients, insisting it makes a better tasting and quality product.

Appalachian Grains is currently working with six local farmers for barley production and their output has increased more than three-fold since 2019, but they are looking to expand further. One challenge expansion will present is where to store the barley. For this, the owners hope they have found a sustainable solution by raising money to purchase a brownfield site, previously used for loading coal onto railroad cars but now abandoned, and revitalizing it into a grain silo. The enterprise is also currently sending the barley out of state for cleaning and malting before bringing the goods back to Virginia in a form ready for sale to breweries. Closing the loop with an in-state solution will further curb greenhouse gas emissions.

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