AB-Inbev bets on new barley variants to boost African beer-making capacity

South African Breweries (SAB), part of Anheuser Busch InBev, is betting new drought-resistant barley varieties will help it maintain record annual production in its major domestic beer market and meet demand elsewhere on the continent, officials said.

The world’s largest brewer is betting hi-tech natural cultivars and enhanced farming techniques in Africa will eliminate barley and malt shortages dampening expansion plans.

“No barley, no beer. So, absolutely critical to have a sustainable supply chain of barley,” said Josh Hammann, Africa director for agriculture development and sustainability at AB InBev in Africa.

Scientists say dryer conditions in South Africa due to global warming could diminish barley production in Caledon, the country’s main growing area, where AB Inbev also converts barley into malt at its flagship 180,000 tonne factory.

Malt is currently imported from Europe only when local production volumes do not meet quality parameters or if there is a crop failure due to drought. But, the long-term plan is to eventually export larger quantities of malt as barley harvests yield more, with Africa the main export target market, said company officials.

By using drought-resistant barley and improved agronomics, Hammann said AB Inbev surpassed a target of reaching 475,000 metric tonnes of barley output by 2021, with a record harvest of 560,000 tonnes achieved in the 2020 season when rains were good.

“It’s very important for us as AB Inbev to localise our production and our raw materials… to help mitigate against global risks,” Hammann told Reuters at a barley research farm in Caledon, about 110 km (68 miles) from Cape Town, where wind-swept barley fields ripening for October’s harvest stretch as far as the eye can see.

Researchers are also experimenting with new maize, sorghum and cassava crop cultivars to meet burgeoning spirit brewing prospects in Tanzania, Uganda and Mozambique. Scientists are excited about their latest barley cultivar, Kadie, which has a high-yield potential, a high percentage of kernel plumpness and ripens quicker than other varieties in dry lands.

“It’s quick, it’s short and has the X-factor,” Daniel de Klerk, a barely breeder at the research institute, said of the new variety. Kadie might be considered for use in Budweiser and if successfully tested could become the first African barley variety used for the popular American brew, officials said.