Behind biodynamic: The controversial eco-farming method that's jumped from wine to whisky

Behind biodynamic: The controversial eco-farming method that's jumped from wine to whisky

Grain grown using this blend of farming and spirituality is gaining the attention of eco-conscious distillers
Following the Scotch whisky industry’s commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2040, whisky’s environmental footprint is now scrutinised more than ever before. This has meant thinking hard about how grain is produced. Cultivating cereals such as barley, used to make malt whisky, usually requires a cocktail of pesticides and fertilisers that damage the soil and nearby water sources.

Because of this, some distilleries have produced organic-certified whisky made from barley grown without chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Though they represent a tiny fraction of the overall market, distilleries such as Benromach, Deanston and Bruichladdich have released organic whiskies since the mid-2000s, while, more recently, Nc’Nean became the only Scotch whisky distillery managing fully organic production. However, organic certification and, by extension, organic whisky is largely defined by the absence of chemical inputs in production and the benefits that can deliver to the local environment. However, beyond organic farming lies a field that embraces more esoteric practices.

Enter biodynamics, a very specific and active approach to regenerative agriculture that in the whisky world is currently being pioneered by Bruichladdich on Islay and Waterford in Ireland. That these two distilleries are both making biodynamic whisky is no accident – Waterford founder and oenophile Mark Reynier also previously helped rebuild and establish Bruichladdich. Inspired by French winemakers, he is the main driving force behind biodynamic whisky today.

Representing a small portion of what already is the tiny amount of organic whisky production, the details around biodynamics may seem hard to understand. It originated in the 1920s, but today is defined by the Biodynamic Federation’s 174-page certification guide. Though at first glance it may seem similar to organic farming, biodynamics goes beyond this related practice and embraces circular input methods with metaphysical and spiritual roots.

“The main principle with the processing of biodynamic products is to ensure that when growing the crops, vegetables, or fruits biodynamically, processing standards are maintaining or enhancing, but not diminishing, the land it’s grown on,” says Richard Swann, processing technical officer for the Biodynamics Association in the UK, who has previously inspected both Bruichladdich and Waterford for biodynamic certification. “It’s about using more gentle methods and that’s not easy in this day and age.”

Examining the barley

In biodynamics, the farm (which must already be organic-certified) is seen as a circular, self-sustaining food production system that also improves soil health. Biodynamic farms are required to produce as much of their own fertiliser as possible, from their own animals, which are fed on crops grown on the farm, reducing the need for imported material. This, in turn, reduces the farm’s carbon footprint.

To produce biodynamic whisky, the farm, maltster and distillery must all be certified accordingly. Biodynamically grown barley must be kept separate from the rest, and malting and distillation equipment must be properly cleaned in order for the biodynamic whisky to be produced. While this all makes environmental sense, the biodynamic methods used to create this self-sustaining system may seem somewhat odd to most, and many of its practices are derided by some agriculture industry and academic quarters for being based on spiritual beliefs rather than scientific fact.

For example, crop management, including tilling, planting and harvesting, are all scheduled based on the lunar cycle, which some proponents argue is driven by the moon’s ‘push and pull’ influence on the movement of moisture in the soil and inside plants. The moon’s role in driving earth’s tides is often touted as an example of a similar process. However, astrological influences are also emphasised.

Biodynamic farmers must also use special ‘preparations’ on their fields and compost. One of these requires cow horns to be filled with manure and buried 40–60cm below the surface. Left to decompose over winter, they are recovered the following spring. One teaspoon of the resulting mixture is then diluted with 40–60 litres of water, stirred in alternate directions for one hour and then sprayed over the field.

Then there are the odd methods used to prepare compost. One preparation sees finely chopped oak bark placed into the skull of a cow (younger than one year), pig or horse that is then buried in the earth and surrounded by peat in a place that has heavy rainfall. This, and various other preparations, are eventually added to a compost heap.

While critics dismiss such activities as mysticism, some modern advocates argue that these practices are focused on the practical activity of cultivating local microbiota (for example, bacteria and fungi) and nutrients in order to improve soil health and biodiversity. The official website of the Biodynamic Federation describes these preparations as ‘homeopathy for the soil’.

The origins of biodynamics are even stranger and darker. Many of these unusual practices hail from a series of agricultural lectures given by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner in 1924. The founder of a movement called anthroposophism, Steiner himself is a controversial figure, not least because of his interest in the occult and other fields dismissed as pseudoscience. For example, Steiner described the aforementioned cow horn process thus:

‘The cow has horns in order to send into itself the astral-ethereal formative powers, which, pressing inward, are meant to penetrate right into the digestive organism… Thus in the horn you have something well adapted by its inherent nature, to ray back the living and astral properties into the inner life. In the horn you have something radiating life — nay, even radiating astrality.’

Though his proponents argue he espoused a humanist and universalist world view, his writing on ‘racial evolution’ and reincarnation also displayed abject racism, arguing that the Aryan race is the current pinnacle of human evolution while denigrating other races as inferior. He wavered between support and criticism of anti-Semitic policies throughout his life, which, along with his occultism, earned him the enmity of the then-emerging Nazi party. However, the Nazis themselves liked biodynamic farming and were arguably its most influential champions throughout the 1930s. Biodynamic agricultural plantations were established by the SS at the Dachau and Ravensbrück concentration camps, with prisoners at the latter providing the labour.

There is also a historical Nazi connection with biodynamics’ global certifying body, the Biodynamic Federation, first known as Demeter International. Founded in 1927 as an agricultural cooperative in Germany, Demeter actively collaborated with the Nazi regime and officials to promote biodynamic farming, which sat well with Nazi ideals of anti-materialism. However, critics within the regime were also wary of Steiner’s anthroposophist philosophy and occultist views, particularly Reinhard Heydrich, the founding head of the Nazi Security Service (SD), who dissolved the Anthroposophical Society in Germany as early as 1935.

Demeter was officially banned across the Third Reich in 1941, after deputy führer Rudolf Hess, a proponent of biodynamics, was taken prisoner when he flew solo to Scotland in 1941 to try and negotiate an end to the war. His fall from favour was seized on by Heydrich as an opportunity to ban Demeter and similar organisations in the biodynamic and anthroposophist movement, which had previously been offered political protection. Hess’s support of biodynamics meant the Nazi government officially opposed it after his arrest, on the basis of its anthroposophist and ‘occultist’ roots, while still operating its research plantations and keeping contact with former Demeter officials.

While the Biodynamic Federation does mention its links to Steiner’s philosophy and the 1941 ban on its website, it does not mention its prior relationship with the Nazi party, and, curiously, refers to it only by its lesser-known acronym: NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei). However, the federation publicly states its opposition to ‘racist, anti-constitutional and xenophobic aspirations, and other discriminatory or inhuman behaviour’ and emphasises that ‘justice, equity, and inclusion are integral to the fabric of our work.’

Exploring a biodynamic farm

Today, the biodynamic movement has developed considerably and counts among its ranks myriad farmers who embrace very different philosophical and practical approaches to biodynamic methods, which have also been honed by subsequent generations since Steiner and his contemporaries. Some embrace the more spiritual, mystical and ‘cosmic’ elements, while others are more focussed on the practical learnings and applications that biodynamics can offer and the science that underpins it.

The effectiveness of biodynamics has yet to be definitively proven but is enthusiastically championed by farmers who’ve converted. The small-scale research currently available has so far concluded that productivity levels are similar to average ‘conventional’ organic farms, but, nevertheless, it is embraced by a number of high-profile farms and vineyards around the world, many of the latter producing some of the world’s most critically acclaimed wines.

These businesses claim that switching to biodynamic methods delivered other ample rewards, and they emphasise that yield is not necessarily the primary goal of biodynamic farming. Instead, it is soil health and, in turn, the quality of the crops produced that is most prized. Emphasising that their interest in biodynamics lies firmly in flavour development and eco-conscious whisky making, Waterford and Bruichladdich are extremely pleased with the results of their biodynamic experiments to date, and so are the farmers growing their biodynamic barley.

Dr Richard Gantlett at Yatesbury House Farm, on the Wiltshire Downs near Avebury, England, provides Bruichladdich with its biodynamic barley (its only source outside of Scotland), and praises the effects of biodynamic preparations. Dr Gantlett is a scientist focused on the practical application of biodynamic farming and the benefits it can generate in terms of increasing soil biodiversity, carbon sequestration and crop health. To this end, he has successfully completed a PhD in agriculture at the University of Reading, having submitted a thesis on the impact of high biomass rotation on soil health, weed burden and crop production at his biodynamic farm.

When it comes to retrieving the buried cow horn manure (known as ‘500P’), Gantlett describes the results as “the most perfect, best soil you’ve ever seen”. In spraying his field with this solution, he frames this as helping to “spread the cow’s ability to enhance the fertility of the soil.” He is proud of the closed circular ecosystem he has developed to grow the barley crop.

Trevor Harris is one of Waterford’s five biodynamic barley growers. An organic farmer since 1999, he is also thrilled with the results: “I found when I was an organic farmer that the soil wasn’t holding together properly, you needed those other nutrients to be able to work the land,” he said. “But by going biodynamic, my soil really did become a living organism and you saw the difference immediately. It gave me access to the macro and micronutrients I needed to activate the soil. I see biodynamic farming as the most sustainable form of farming there is.”

So far, biodynamic whisky is being produced on a small scale at both distilleries. Waterford is currently filling around 200 barrels each year but plans to increase that number. The problem, according to Waterford’s head of communications, Mark Newton, is one of supply: “We take all the biodynamic malting barley grown in Ireland, because we’re the only ones asking for it. It makes things difficult as it means we need to convince more growers to make that switch to biodynamic.”

Trials at Bruichladdich have also been fruitful, not just environmentally but in production. “What we find is when that barley goes up to the maltings and they process it, a lot of the guys up there will get in touch and say, ‘I’ve never seen results this good, the predicted spirit yield on that is incredible – let us know how that goes at the distillery because it was an absolute dream at the maltings,’ ” says head distiller Adam Hannett.

Most importantly, the results are also proving to be delicious. In internal blind tasting panels at Waterford, Newton reports that biodynamic samples regularly receive the highest scores for fruity and malty aromas and flavours.

Waterford Luna and cow horns

“Biodynamic barley brings more intensity of flavour than even organic: that’s what we’re after, and that’s what’s been demonstrated in the wine world too,” he adds, highlighting a UCLA-backed study which demonstrated that wines officially certified by third-party biodynamic organisations tend to score on average 11.8 per cent higher in expert blind and semi-blind reviews than conventionally produced products, and they also score higher than wines ‘only’ certified as organic.

Meanwhile, Bruichladdich’s release, titled The Biodynamic Project, has impressive notes of caramel, cream, coffee and chocolate. The distillery team on Islay has similarly praised biodynamic barley’s role in creating superior flavours in Bruichladdich’s unpeated new-make spirit.

The success of these whiskies is encouraging both distilleries to explore barley varietals that are more receptive to biodynamic farming – Waterford hopes to cross-breed a new varietal from other heritage barley types. It is a natural extension of the work Waterford and Bruichladdich are doing to examine not just the effect of barley on flavour but how the whisky industry approaches its agricultural supply chain.

Biodynamics is part of a wider trend, currently on the fringes of the industry, that questions the prevailing obsession with yield over crop quality. By focusing on the health of the barley crop and the land it is grown on, biodynamics helps question current practices despite its ugly origin story and dubious methods. In the end, it can only lead to a greener future for the whisky world and, hopefully, tastier spirits.
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