State cooperative looks to sustainable barley, diverse beer flavors
By Jenny Lavey, for the MSU News ServiceMontana is helping make beer better.
A regional, interdisciplinary team led by Montana State University, Colorado State University and a group of northwest barley growers, maltsters and brewers has received $300,000 to research sustainable ways to support barley growers and the craft brewing industry.
The three-year grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture will establish a Rocky Mountain Malt Cooperative and will allow MSU, CSU, regional brewers, maltsters and barley growers to investigate barley lines that are adapted for dryland agriculture and include diverse flavor profiles for the craft brewing industry, according to Jamie Sherman, MSU barley breeder in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture.
The grant’s purpose is to solve some of the biggest challenges in the farming of malting barley and the craft brewing industry — namely limited water resources for farming and a desire from the craft brewing and malting industry for diverse flavors and products, Sherman said.
“This is an unusual form of funding because it’s stakeholder-driven, and we have strong grower and industry support,” Sherman said. “Our goal is to directly improve somebody’s bottom line, which is why we’re working so closely with the malting and brewing industry and barley growers themselves. They know what the problems are.”
Farming barley has historically required high moisture to ensure malt quality for craft brewers, Sherman said. Given current agricultural pressures on water use in the Rocky Mountain West, fewer irrigated acres are available for barley production, according to Sherman.
“The challenge with dryland agriculture for barley, specifically, is that it’s harder to produce a high-quality, high-yielding crop, so farmers are reluctant to plant barley,” she said. “In turn, maltsters and craft brewers don’t have a reliable and quality crop.”
Sherman said that today’s popular craft beers use all-malt during the brewing process, compared to other brewers who use adjunct-malt brewing practices, meaning additional cereal grains are incorporated with malt “so there’s a focus on maintaining the sustainability and quality of barley for the all-malt brewing market,” she said.
To make a difference in the amount of water needed grow barley, as well as increase potential flavor and quality of the crop, Sherman plans to cross dryland adapted barley with popular and flavorful barley lines from the 1900s, ones often found in Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, according to Sherman.
“Some of these old varieties would perform terribly in today’s Montana environment, but we can take some of their genetic characteristics for flavor and quality and breed them for modern pest and disease resistance,” Sherman said.
To obtain and use genetic characteristics from old barley varieties, Sherman said she’ll use germplasm from the United States National Plant Germplasm System through the United States Department of Agriculture Germplasm Resources Information Network, a national gene bank for plant resources. From there, Sherman said, she’ll use traditional plant breeding techniques to make genetic crosses between old and new barley lines.
Ultimately, finding solutions at the genetic level through plant breeding, then field testing new barley lines and processing the barley to malt in the MSU Malt Quality Lab, has the potential to make a difference in the market, no matter the environment, Sherman said.
Adam Heuberger, assistant professor of horticulture and crop science at Colorado State University and dual principal investigator on the grant, will use proteomics and metabolomics, two comprehensive chemical and protein profiling methods, to investigate the flavor profiles of the malt produced by Sherman’s lab. He will also work with breweries to evaluate flavor of beer brewed from the experimental malts.
“Our primary objective is to explore the genetics of barley to see if they, in fact, influence flavor,” Heuberger said. “The relationship between barley genetics and beer flavor isn’t well understood, so we’re utilizing CSU’s analytical resources to help answer key questions in this field.”
“We’re able to perform chemical analysis of the malts and help guide MSU in making breeding selections based on flavor. This project will, therefore, investigate and support a greater diversity of barley varieties for industry, and that’s what we’re working with industry for: listening to their challenges and their expertise,” Heuberger said.
To do that, Heuberger said, the grant is focused on learning and understanding the needs of the craft brewing and malting industry and using their expertise to guide research outcomes with industry representatives from the national Brewers Association.
Chris Swersey, supply chain specialist at the Boulder, Colorado-based Brewers Association, said the grant’s academic and industry partnership will help the craft brewing industry grow.
“We brainstormed for hours about what it’s in it for brewers as small businesses, and great things come from when you just sit down and talk with people,” he said. “Over the last 15 years, we’ve seen explosive growth in our association membership across the country. This year craft brewers will consume 40 percent of the malt used by U.S. brewers, so we have a stewardship responsibility to growers, maltsters and brewers. And that’s where the cooperative nature of the grant comes into play.”
The grant, Swersey added, will likely include testing various flavor profiles by regional brewers, such as New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado. The Brewers Association counts as members more than 3,800 of the over 5,400 breweries in the country. Because craft brewers, as a group, are one of the single largest consumers of malt, communicating and meeting their needs is critical for all stakeholders, according to Swersey. Swersey added America’s capacity for malting has increased 12 percent over the last three years.
“The entire industry is really betting on the future,” Swersey said. “We view this grant as an opportunity to communicate our members’ needs and work with the supply chain so that we can support a long-term, competitive and sustainable trend in barley production in an era when growers are facing significant challenges on their farms
According to the United Stated Department of Agriculture’s 2016 National Agricultural Statistics, 1 million barley acres were planted in Montana, and growers averaged 57 bushels per acre, valued in total at $270 million. In Colorado, 79,000 acres of barely were planted.
Montana Wheat and Barley Committee Executive Vice President Collin Watters said the grant is an important step as his committee and Montana growers work together to support innovation at MSU’s barley breeding program.
“The decline of barley acreage across the United States has been a bit of a wake-up call for maltsters and brewers,” Watters said. “Without a consistent, reliable supply of barley in a changing climate, costs could skyrocket. Getting maltsters, brewers, growers and land-grants involved is what’s ultimately going to improve the profitability for everyone.”
Watters added the MWBC’s cornerstone mission, as it has been for the last 50 years, is to support the profitability of grain farming in Montana, largely through research and market development.
“Breeding programs are long-term investment, and we’re already starting to see the investment pay off in Dr. Sherman’s barley breeding program and in additional MSU projects,” Watters said. “What’s remarkable about this project is that it has the capacity to expedite variety development and decrease the amount of time for growers to get a high quality product to market. We have an obligation to support the projects and programs that will, in turn, improve farm profitability. That’s exactly what this project is about, so we’re excited.”
According to the USDA, barley is a short-season, early maturing crop grown commercially in both irrigated and in dryland environments. USDA statistics show about 27 states grow barley, with the major barley producing states being Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Washington, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Oregon and Utah. According to the Montana Brewers Association website, there are 53 licensed breweries in Montana that use more than 7 million pounds of malted grain, half of which is grown in Montana. The association estimates a collective annual economic impact of $60 million. There are 230 established breweries in Colorado, according to the Colorado Tourism Office.