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Every other year the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre (CMBTC) brings Chinese malt buyers to Western Canada to showcase the year’s malting barley crop. This past year, however, COVID-19 derailed the biennial tour. Undeterred, the CMBTC’s managing director Peter Watts quickly pivoted, creating a new strategy that would continue to allow the organization to reach buyers with the barley crop data they require.

First, CMBTC developed, a website that features up-to-date information on harvest progress and high-resolution images of barley fields taken throughout the Prairies during the growing season. It also presents updates on planted acres by variety as well as quality and supply. Given malting barley is their critical raw material, the Chinese buyers are keen to understand how the growing season and harvest progressed and the resulting quality they can expect from the year’s crop.

Second, the CMBTC created a video that detailed the progress of the growing season from seeding to harvest. The video gave buyers a detailed look at existing and new varieties at multiple farms and featured comments by industry representatives about the agronomic packages of the varieties as well as their malting and brewing characteristics.

“Everybody can see a video, it’s not just the people that come to Canada,” said Watts. “Now anyone in the company can watch it.” Typically, 15 to 18 employees from six to 10 companies attend in-person tours. However, there is no limit to how many can watch the annual review video, or how often.

The video, which is subtitled in Chinese, will be further subtitled in additional languages and sent to buyers in a variety of countries, according to Watts. “We’ll circulate it far and wide this year. We don’t have to limit the number of companies or be focused exclusively on China,” he said. “In the future, we can do both the in-person and digital format. We’ll do a new crop tour and shoot it, then create a video that can be shared with customers that can’t attend in person.”

Trent Whiting with SeCan is heavily involved in malting barley and thinks the virtual showcase makes perfect sense and arguably allows for stronger business ties. “Any time you can connect the dots in the value chain in person, or virtually, I think it’s all really important,” said Whiting, SeCan’s Alberta and B.C. marketing representative. “It is a one-spot source for information versus [buyers] having to go out and find it [themselves]. It’s been pretty cool what everyone has been able to accomplish virtually. It’s just keeping everyone in communication.”

The 2020/21 top varieties by estimated seeding area are CDC Copeland (42 per cent), AAC Synergy (22 per cent) and AC Metcalfe (16 per cent).

As harvest inched closer to completion, Watts held company-specific Zoom calls with Chinese buyers throughout the fall. He and Yueshu Li, the CMBTC’s director of malting and brewing operations, spoke about the varieties and their performance, as well as what the CMBTC expects in terms of overall quality and brewing characteristics. An unexpected upside, the pandemic has kept people apart but facilitated increased contact with buyers.

“We present that information in English and Chinese and the customers have the chance to ask questions about availability of supply or any other concerns they have about the Canadian crop,” he said. “That’s been a really effective way of engaging with the customer.

“The irony of this is that we are more engaged with our Chinese customers without seeing one another than we ever have been before.”


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