Without great barley, there’s no such thing as great beer. Yet for all the attention lavished by craft-beer aficionados on hop varietals and rare beer styles, barley—the foundation of any world-class brew—is all-too-often overlooked.

Now a Toronto-born, startup is giving barley its starring role as a key ingredient, with a blockchain-based platform that traces the often-anonymous commodity from seed to glass. If the technology is complex, the idea behind it is simple: First, it provides consumers with transparency about where their products are coming from. Secondly, it helps producers—brewers and farmers alike—take advantage of consumers’ growing preferences for local and artisanal products, showing them where the products are coming from, who’s creating them and what the story behind them is.

Grain Discovery co-founder Rory O’Sullivan believes the technology could transform the way agricultural commodities of all kinds are marketed.

“Some aspects of agriculture have become very high-tech,” says O’Sullivan.

“Seed development, fertilizers, farm technology. That’s moved at warp speed. But how we market and sell the product, those supply chains? That’s been unchanged for generations.”

O’Sullivan knows ag: he grew up on a cattle farm in Patchewollock, Australia, and in his 20s worked in Australia and the UK in the agricultural commodities industry. In London, he worked for the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board on its agricultural commodities books.

By 2018, he’d moved to Toronto, and founded Grain Discovery, along with partners Ruairi Hanafin and Peter Vincent. The company’s first effort was an online marketplace that streamlines the process of buying and selling grain. That system replaces reams of paperwork and telephone tag with an efficient, transparent and secure system connecting buyers and sellers.

The barley traceability project brings consumers into that mix. Each and every stage, between the moment the seed is planted to the moment the beer is canned, is documented via blockchain. When a customer picks up a can up at a store or a bar, they’ll find a QR code they can scan, as well as a batch number they can enter into the brewery’s website. Either will bring the user to a website that displays a “digital passport,” where users can explore the history of the product. And, says O’Sullivan, barley is only the beginning.

“The idea is to grow and sell a premium ingredient, not just a bulk commodity,” says O’Sullivan. “There’s a premium attached to that for each player in the supply chain—the brewer, the maltster, the farmer, everyone. And that can be applied to any commodity.”

The system was piloted last year in a partnership with Olds College Brewery in Olds, Alberta. The student brewery produced 1,000 cans of “Local Lager.” Each can bore a QR code, which revealed for drinkers the story of the beer straight back to the farm: which barley varietal it was (Copeland), where the seed came from (Westway Farms in Didsbury, Alberta), where the barley was malted (Red Shed Malting in Penhold, Alberta) and details on everything from the moisture content to the germination dates. The application is simple: each user in the supply chain uses a website or app to enter their relevant data, which records it in Grain Discovery’s blockchain infrastructure.

That may seem like an abundance of information, but it speaks to the level of detail the system can collect. Barley growers, maltsters and brewers can use this kind of transparency to tell a deeper story about their products’ provenance—just as coffee growers and vintners do when it comes to beans and grapes.

That’s not just marketing spin. The quality and type of barley is intimately connected to what pours out of the tap at a bar and lands in your pint glass. “A lot of the award-winning beers from the States use malt from this part of the world,” says Kirk Zembal, co-founder of Blindman Brewing, a mid-sized brewery based in Lacombe, Alberta. “The prairies are just a fantastic region to grow barley.”

Blindman has recently partnered with Grain Discovery on a commercial-scaled application of the traceability project. Blindman’s first traced beer is the May Long Double Long IPA, an intensely flavoured, high-alcohol brew which will see a first release of 20,000 cans.

The traceability project promises not only to connect consumers with more information about what they’re drinking, but also promises to connect different parts of the supply chain to one another. For example, Zembal often doesn’t know who produced the barley that ends up in his beer, and the farmers often have no idea where their product, grown as a bulk commodity, ends up.

“Once a year, I'll go out figure out who grew barley that was turned into our beer,” says Zembal. “I’ll pass over some beer, and they’re blown away. They know abstractly that what they produce ends up being consumed by people, but it’s different when you can hold a can in your hand.”

O’Sullivan hopes the system will better position the Canadian barley industry as a premium supplier, while satisfying growing consumer desire to know where their food (and drink) comes from. By working in collaboration with government regulators, he even suggests the system could lay the framework for a traceability certification system with far-reaching implications for agricultural commodities of all kinds.

“We want to really put a face on your food, and bring you on the journey that it’s taken though the supply chain,” says O’Sullivan. “There’s no better way to drive home how special a product is.”

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