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Harvest 2020 Review
October 1, 2020 | ELEMENT: barley | article | 10 minute read


Now that biodynamic grower Trevor Harris has delivered his grain, we have rolled down the shutter on our Cathedral of Barley 2020 Harvest. Tractors have been traversing the narrow lanes of the Irish countryside over several weeks – an unusually wide, staggered window for this year’s harvest; one by one, lorry loads full of grain to be dried and stored. 

John Dalton, who runs the Cathedral, views this year’s harvest as one of the most challenging he has experienced during his time in the family business. The difficult years in his eyes were in 1997, 2008 – and now 2020. 

In the spring there was three months of drought, followed by an average summer, then during the harvest we were nearly washed away with Storm Ellen followed by Storm Francis. Rainfall as high as 200mm was recorded in southern weather stations for the month of August.

The excess moisture in grain was problematic, but the ground became soft too – combines were under pressure, and with slower work rates, the harvest dragged well in towards the end of September. Crops were on the cusp of falling over, grain was blackening; some grains had shed, and heads were blown on the ground. Not only cereals were affected by the storms but there have been huge losses to apple growers across the country, with a third of the crop ending up on the ground and many more trees breaking in the strong winds.

This harvest has taken its toll on crops, machinery and also on growers with the continuous battle against the elements. Growers will remember harvest 2020 as one of annoyance with stress levels among growers at an all time high. The growing season never looked promising but barley performed better than anticipated. Rejection levels were high as quality began to suffer as the harvest dragged on – and on. 

Despite that, this year we now have 2020 barley stored from 36 individual farms, along with one research site outside Kilkenny. 

We have welcomed barley from 11 new growers this year including a new biodynamic grower Paddy Blake from Kilcock, Co. Kildare, and our first grower from Ulster, Eamon Tiney from Letterkenny, Co Donegal. That means at the end of our sixth harvest, we have now seen a total of 97 terroirific growers rumble over the weighbridge in Daltons.

Barley, Donoughmore


Our modern varieties this year included Laureate, Prospect, Tungsten; and from our heritage grains we harvested Irish Goldthorpe, Hunter and Old Irish – the latter of which we have upscaled enough seed for next year – and a view to distil in 2022. 

The dominant variety in the store this year is Laureate, with 21 batches in total. Laureate is favored by growers because of its exceptional yields in lower nitrogen situations – which we need to meet our distilling specifications. 

Prospect was used as a conventional and derogated organic and biodynamic variety. Like most varieties, Prospect’s family tree is familiar to us and is a result of Irina x Overture cross.

Our heritage varieties are grown under a research licence through Minch Malt – this allows us to sow a variety that is not on the Department of Agriculture’s Recommended List. Previously Seamus Duggan has manned the heritage site in Donoughmore, Co. Laois; but for 2020 it was Denis Dalton who nursed the indigenous plants through till harvest outside Kilkenny city.

Organic growers: Paddy Tobin top; Pat and Denis Booth bottom


Spring barley has the potential to achieve great yields if the weather plays its part. We hear farmers harp on about the weather and it can seem a tad obsessive – but its impact has huge effects on their annual income. Being down a ton per acre can mean losses of thousands of Euro, with the same input overheads and hard graft.

This year the autumn-sown Laureate crops varied in yield from between 2-4ton/acre. The March and April-sown farms yielded surprisingly greater than expected, but equally as variable with yields in the 2.5-3.5ton/acre bracket. 

This is depressing for growers in contrast with the yields of 4t/acre that was commonplace during the 2019 growing season. It clearly illustrates the effect seasonal weather conditions can have on the production of malting barley – and the grower’s bottom line.


The organic and biodynamic malting barley batches fared better in the hot summer weather conditions, with grain yields in the normal range of 1.5-2ton/acre. The organic matter rich soils that these growers have spent years building and investing in; held onto much needed moisture during the drought stress. Weeds were problematic once the rain eventually came but barley was well able to compete for its place. The stubble of all crops are more green than usual because of this surge of late growth. 

Physical grain quality was variable, depending on harvesting dates, and moisture in the grain was high to unacceptable in some cases. Grain protein values existed in a wide range of 8.9-11.3% but interestingly the overall average of 10% was similar to last year. 

The difference between ripe grains and second growth grains. Under stress during the drought, the plant sends up another shoot when conditions improve to insure survival. Those farms that got miraculous showers at the right time have none of it.


2020 – AVERAGE 9.8%, RANGE 8.6-11.2%

2019 – AVERAGE 8.9%, RANGE 6.9-9.4%

The growing season had multiple periods of intermittent growth spurts leading to a vast range in protein levels, justified only by micro-environments interacting individually with the growing conditions at hand.   

For Head Brewer Neil, 2020 harvest will have protein levels at nearly a percent higher than 2019 harvest, which may prove another challenge for spirit yields in 2021 – as it did for the 2018 harvest (distilled 2019), where we lost approximately 12,000 9-litre cases of potential 2018-harvest whisky – for which we had paid. 

Weed surge in stubbles


During the drought in early summer, we feared this year would be similar to the difficulty of 2018 harvest – with protein highs in the 12% range. Thankfully, we got perfect growing conditions during grain fill which gave the plant time to lay down much needed starch and dilute protein levels. That resulted in an increase in yield potential and larger, plumper grains than anticipated. The struggle with quality as the harvest began to drag was seen across all counties, inevitably some premium crops were lost and downgraded to the feed heap. Some familiar terroirs unfortunately didn’t make the grade this harvest, so we had to look further a field to get our required batches and welcome new growers who had better success during the 2020 harvest.


– Grace O’Reilly, Agronomist 

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