Biodynamic Whisky: The Barley Growers’ Year
“I’m not really interested in the philosophy of Steiner. I am interested in what Steiner has installed for agriculture, but his philosophy – anthroposophy – it’s a kind of religion… What I look for are the best ways to make the greatest possible wines.”
Aubert de Villaine, the aristocratic owner of the world’s greatest wine, Domaine Romanée Conti
We’re born with our own science lab: our taste and our sense of smell. The quickest lab analysis, explains biodynamic barley grower Trevor Harris, is to put something in your mouth. And when something tastes good, it’s for a reason; in the case of great-tasting food, even great-tasting barley, it is because it contains nutrition.
The most flavoursome nutrient-dense foods contain a complex array of minerals that are a direct result of being fed by a good, nutrient-rich soil – a living soil. In other words, soil nutrition equals flavour. The world’s greatest winemakers and chefs get it – so it’s not that much of a leap to understand that, should one respect barley, great whiskies can be made in this way too.
John McDonnell, one of our three biodynamic growers, and who has been involved in the movement since 2000, suggests wider implications. ’Culturally we’ve managed to take what is barley and diluted flavour and potential to such an enormous degree that it’s bit stale and boring, so biodynamics is an attempt to put that vitality back in. We’re rediscovering the potential of barley. Hops in beer is like an arms race right now, but in malted grain that potential has been lost. There’s homogeneity. It’s all rather dull.’
Our biodynamic adventure in Alsace
As we enter another year of distilling biodynamic barley, there are many who wish to understand more about this strange meeting-point of science and esoteric philosophy as put forward by Rudolf Steiner, especially in how it differs from organic and conventional agriculture. Sure, the yields are not as high as conventionally grown barley, but yield does not equate to flavour. It is the flavour of our barley that we are interested in exploring, and in this particular case a flavoursome ‘biodynamic whisky’.
So what goes into producing a nutrient-rich grain, and how involved is a typical year of biodynamic agriculture?
The really unconventionals: John McDonnell, Co Meath; Trevor Harris, Naas, Co Kildare; and Alan Mooney, Kilcock, Co Kildare.
A biodynamic farm operates in endless cycles that feed each other, that develop both down in the soil and the wider farm, and they become increasingly involved and sophisticated with each year. So although there is no real start point to growing biodynamic barley, it is after the previous year’s harvest that the grower immediately begins to prepare for the following year’s crop.
With the darkness drawing in, winter is often a time for hibernation and recuperation. In a manner of speaking, this is no different to the biodynamic farm as a whole: but it is more like charging a battery, a ‘crystallisation’ process where the focus is on charging up the soil for the season to come. For John McDonnell, this time of year on the farm is experience as a ‘breathing process’. Autumn and winter is a time of ‘inbreathing’. With falling leaves, you have a loss. But with decomposition of the plant material there is a renewal. ‘People speak of folk cultures in biodynamics, but really it all just rings true of people’s perception of the old ways. In our own perception the the earth has shed its garment, its expression. We’re left with a skeletal structure, where we’re thinking towards mineral nature.’
The barley itself won’t be sown until April or May, far later than our conventional barley growers, but the process begins by ensuring the soil is humming with life before that seed goes into the ground. Many skeptics of biodynamics might recoil at phrases like that, to talk of a ‘humming’ soil, but there is surprisingly high degree of scientific method involved: a method to the madness?
To assist with the turbocharging of the microbial content of the soil, to get it humming with life, the growers apply two of the famous biodynamic preparations – 500 and 501 horn manure and horn silica, from November to mid-February, often up to once a month over the winter.
The idea with these preparations is to have the biology working properly in the top soil – the top 4 to 6 inches – where the roots of modern barley varieties will get their nutrients. Just a couple of years into having converted from organic to biodynamic agriculture (he has farmed organically since 1999) and Trevor Harris is now starting to see the rewards. That comes in the form of a balance of nutrients in the soil – humification of the soil. It should look a lot like chocolate cake.
The humous is where huge amounts of nutrition can be stored. Trevor wasn’t able to get this through conventional or even the organic system – not until he used the preparations. ‘The thing about the preparations is that they take what you have and organise it,’ he explains. ‘Biodynamics is all about balance. They help the plants with both the balance of nutrition in the soil and photosynthesis.’
Cover crops are important over this charging period. Plants release sugars produced by photosynthesis into the soil through root exudates and feed those microorganisms within, forging a real symbiosis between the life in the soil and the plant. With those microorganisms being nourished, it means the soil won’t be starting from scratch in spring. It’ll be ready to go.
Biodynamic grower Alan Mooney describes the relationship with soil as one of balance. ‘The soil in its own right is able to produce a certain volume and when you force it, things go out of kilter. And we’re then chasing that problem with sprays… So if you go back to nature and get the chemical balance in the plants right, the more natural route will produce a better flavoured barley. That’s my fervent belief.’
When the previous year’s barley has been harvested, the biodynamic growers will plant a cover crop to keep the biology in the soil alive over winter – something adherents of conventional agriculture are themselves starting to practice these days.
Vetch, rye, forage rape, a diverse collection, will pull up any nutrition that’s soluble in the soil preventing them being lost through leeching and transform it to a biologically stable form that will be available for the spring crop. Their roots help work the soil, leaving it easier to sow a crop in the spring. These plants keep the ‘subterranean livestock’ fed for the winter. A handful of healthy soil contains some 7 billion micro-organisms. ‘We’ve livestock under our feed as well as beside us,’ Trevor says. John refers to them as his ‘little buddies’ in the soil.
From November to April, Trevor’s above-the-ground livestock – he has a mixed herd of Angus crosses, Hereford, Short Horn, Simmental and Canadian Red Angus – come into their winter housing, providing manure. But the manure will be first transformed into compost over a period of months before being applied to the land the following year, not immediately.
The winter is also a big study period with biodynamic, conservation and agriculture literature. Rudolf Steiner, the creator of the spiritual and scientific biodynamic philosophies, encouraged his adherents to experiment, to explore his ideas and develop them. Today that has led to a large, diverse community of practitioners, all the way from cutting-edge, world-class viticulturists to proponents of soil health. ‘There’s an infinite amount of information,’ Trevor says, ‘that if you studied all your life you still wouldn’t get to the end of it. Nature is so diverse that it has to be infinite.’
Indeed, biodynamics isn’t some dogma to be repeated slavishly. For John especially, it is a collection of active theories that you must put your own thinking into. ‘They’re living thoughts, thought vehicles, not just bits of data to download.’
“The future will be organic and biodynamic… The vines are stronger and [in the wine] it gives more fruit, more freshness, more depth.”
Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Louis Roederer Champagne’s chef de cave, Decanter.
The New Year passes – our own curious calendar-based rituals have gone – and the biodynamic year transforms again. This phase of the year focuses on the growth above the ground – sowing the crop – and the life-force that comes from the sun: photosynthesis.
‘In a way, all the intelligence and information regained from the decomposition informs the future plant,’ says John. ‘What’s described by some as cosmic forces, the plant is basically reaching, drawn up by the sun. And in the spring there’s extra personal involvement: you’re really willing things on to grow and realise their highest expression and potential. It’s a funny way of going about things, but we like it.’
The field for the year’s malting barley is ploughed three or four weeks before sowing. Cover crops from the winter are left to be broken down – with the assistance of biodynamic preparation 500. The growers then allow the soil to consolidate, and then till to get a fine seed bed – enough that they could sow seed, but don’t, not yet.
Weeds germinate, which will be left for 8 to 10 days. Weeds have very little by way of food reserves, and need to photosynthesise quickly or they’ll die. At that point the field is tilled again, just lightly. That will kill the first germination of weeds. This may have to be done twice – weather permitting – but it means that barley crops will suffer much less weed pressure.
When it is time to sow the seed, Trevor has set up his own system on the seeder to apply a ‘drench’ directly on the seed as it hits the ground. This gives the barley an organically-charged advantage over everything around it. That seed drench contains a feed of kelp, potentised preparations, EM (effective microorganisms – not unlike a probiotic yoghurt – which was devised by a Japanese microbiologist). Shortly after the seed goes in, 500 will be applied if it wasn’t applied already then on goes preparation 501.
Trevor explain that there is quite a bit of science to it. ‘The stuff people would have heard about is the way-out-there things – life forces, the cosmos; things that people find hard to grasp and these are important. But it’s the preparations – that’s a major difference between biodynamics and organics. Organics is focusing on what you’re not doing, what you’re not applying; but biodynamics is going a step further – you are applying extra preparations, biological amendments to get your soil working, trying to create balance. When we have problems with disease, pests or weeds it is a sign of an imbalance something may be missing.’
‘It’s a very holistic approach very dear to my heart,’ Alan Mooney adds. ‘it would allow me hopefully to produce good quality food and to do it without the use of [chemical] amendments in the long term. And to improve the biological activity and life in the soil.’
Inspecting soil quality on Trevor Harris’s farm
Once the barley crop’s root development gets off to a flying start with the seed drench, the plants start to photosynthesise. It then starts giving back to the soil, getting that up-down feeding from the plant symbiotically with the subterranean livestock. ‘As above, so below,’ in Steiner’s classically inspired words.
Companion crops play a big role when growing biodynamic barley. The growers may broadcast plants such as Bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and Black Medick (Medicago lupulina); as legumes they fix nitrogen, and they’re quite short so they won’t compete with the barley. Indeed, there is a great symbiosis between a legume and barley; each benefits the other.
It’s crucial to take soil samples, which Trevor Harris does regularly. He walks a ‘W’ pattern around the field, takes a soil sample every 50 yards, and sends it off for analysis of its mineral make-up – the Albrecht test. General farm tests are concerned with soluble nutrients, which is only a snapshot of what’s there at a given moment. If there’s a shower of rain, that changes. An Albrecht test looks for what’s in the soil, not just soluble minerals. It’s a far more complete picture of what’s available to the barley. ‘I’m using the biology to feed my plants, so I need to get a wider suite of nutrients tested.’
During the summer, the barley receives preparation 508 – a homemade Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) concoction, which contains silica that helps to strengthen the plant and protect the boundaries of the leaf so that it won’t get attacked by fungi.
Two weeks before harvest, the crop will receive 501 again along with Valerian 507 (Valeriana officinalis). The idea is that the horn silica and 507 help with the grain’s ripening. It will also intensify the quality, nutrition and flavours – and assist with the keeping quality.
Harvesting is a case, as with all farming, of waiting for the weather to be right. Preferably the barley harvest date will be aligned with an appropriate date on the biodynamic calendar, but it’s not always easy in the Irish climate.
After the grain is harvested, it gets loaded onto the trailer and off to Dalton’s and Minch Malt. It goes with the driver along with the biodynamic certification (there is a lot of paperwork involved) and Waterford Distillery passport, to prove that the barley is going to the right place – provenance with evidence. ‘You’re reaping and storing, but there’s a certain satisfaction of having reached safety by this point,’ John observes.
The growers may either chop the straw, or store it for cattle bedding. As soon as the field is clear, they’re back in with the cover crop – preferring not to leave bare soil for any length of time. It’s important to keep the biology humming – to keep that subterranean livestock, John’s ‘little buddies’ nourished. Those cover crops vary depending on the time of year. Buckwheat, for instance, is perfect for extracting phosphorous that other plants can’t access, then releasing it into a more accessible form for other plants when it’s broken down. But if they’re not sowing in August, there’s no point – as soon as there’s a whiff of frost, it’ll die.
John McDonnell, Shalvanstown – Credit Des Foley
The compost that had begun to be piled up back in the winter should now be about 80% broken down. The farmers might just put manure straight on the land, but the biodynamic way is to first make compost. It will have had the 6 compost preparations added to it, each of which focus on different nutrients and different elements of the compost – which should again look like chocolate cake. The two most important factors in the soil are oxygen and water; within that chocolate cake, the growers are aiming for pore spaces for the microorganisms to receive oxygen, as well as good water retention; a balanced compost helps with this.
The core preparations, 500 and 501, come out, and the cycle begins again, ready to charge – or turbocharge – the soil’s battery. With each new year the soil becomes richer, more nourished, more alive. Each part of the farming system benefits from these increasingly better inputs. More nutrients are brought into the cycle – more nutrients that bring more flavour to the grain; flavours that we can then extrapolate with a respectful distillation process.
‘You should pass on the land to the next generation in at least as good a condition as you got it,’ Alan Mooney concludes. ‘At least as good.’