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Barley breeding advances on many fronts

Photos by Patrick Hayes, Oregon State University closeup of green barley heads
MEETING THE MARKET: Barley breeders are seeing renewed interest in the crop, with a new demand from craft brewers and new varieties suited to new uses.
This grain crop gets renewed attention for beer, but there’s more going on that that.

Barley is a crop that’s been loved and loathed, depending on the market year. But these days, farmers with an eye toward special markets may find barley is a crop that belongs in their rotation. Breeders are looking at a range of factors as they work on new lines, from how well the crop goes through malting to new food and feed opportunities.

“You have to be optimistic in this business,” says Patrick Hayes, barley breeder, Oregon State University. “There are grounds for optimism; I’ve been getting more calls about barley this fall planting season than I have for a long time.”

Hayes’ work at OSU has included developing new lines for traditional malting use, and development of hull-less or “naked” barley that has a range of applications.

Barley is a versatile crop, with potential for use in malt where it is important to beer-making. With the rise of craft beers, that area has seen more attention. Yet those hull-less lines also have value — since barley is a good source of beta-glucans, a soluble fiber associated with heart and digestive health.

And that’s the way of barley, an ancient grain that has found its way into many uses. The area getting a lot of attention these days is for malt, with the explosion of the craft beer business.

Hayes notes — as most barley growers know — that major malting companies work on contract, but there remains enthusiasm for the crop for craft brewers. And that has led to a rise in craft maltsters, which may be bringing new opportunities, too.

“The Rahr and Great Western maltsters [malting companies] of this world play an essential role,” Hayes says. “They meet the malt needs for the mainstream and craft industry.”

Yet, those craft maltsters offer an opportunity for local growers. “You have small facilities that may need a ton or a couple-ton batches, and they can potentially source local barley,” Hayes says.

Oregon State University barley test plots
ON TRIAL: Oregon State University has a number of barley trials in the works, including hull-less varieties that offer improved properties for food and brewing use.


Barley, beer and flavor

And Hayes has done some interesting work on the potential new role of barley in beer-making beyond malt. He’s done work on how barley can affect flavor in beer. “That’s kind of the next wave, perhaps, in brewing,” he says, noting that hops have a huge impact on flavor as well as yeasts. Yet in lighter beers, that are more malt-forward, barley varieties can have an effect on flavor.

“We’ve shown that there are statistically significant differences in beers brewed with different barleys,” he says. “Those differences were determined using trained sensory panels, consumer panels — and we’ve incorporated metabolomics and proteomics, too. There’s exciting work at Colorado State University, where they’ve mapped some of the genes driving flavor.”

The work on barley impact on beer flavor is ongoing, and Hayes has worked with two varieties — Golden Promise and Full Pint — to explore this area.

Hayes is also working with a grad student whose thesis is to explore five winter barley types in an on-farm trial to explore differences in flavor. “This is something that enterprising brewers may pick up,” he adds.

green barley field
VERSATILE CROP: Barley breeding includes new work at Montana State University that offers potential for new markets for the crop. Work includes hull-less lines for food, and work on forage barley.


Malting in-house

Jamie Sherman, who heads up the barley breeding program at Montana State University, says her barley breeding program got a boost with the installation of the university’s own malting setup in 2016. “When I started breeding barley in 2015 ... it seemed we had a hard time getting a high-quality line out; it was because we weren’t able to look at as much quality data as needed.”

Barley varieties for malting must be approved for use by the American Malting Barley Association, which has a defined procedure for approval. The challenge for Sherman was getting enough information on malt performance on inbred lines early on. The solution was building an in-house malting setup, which she did with the help of several groups.

Sherman got support for building the facility from the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, MSU and The Brewers Association. “And I had startup money as a new faculty member,” she recalls. “We used those sources to get it going.”

By having in-house malting capability, Sherman and her students could test barley lines much earlier in the breeding process to determine their suitability for commercial use. “We get malting information from USDA Agricultural Research Service, which provides that information for the whole nation, and we’ll keep participating,” she says. “Because we do our own malting, we can better understand the whole malt process, and we’re learning new things about malt — and we’re excited about what we’re learning.”

In fact, a new barley line called Buzz — named for Buzz Mattelin, a longtime advocate and supporter of barley in the state — provides the ability to shorten the malt process by a whole day. “We would not have learned that if we hadn’t been malting our own barley,” she says.

That one-day savings can be significant in the cost of producing malt, but also in the concept of sustainability. A day less in the malting process reduces the energy needed to produce the malt. “And to him [Mattelin], sustainability is very important, and he wants this barley to succeed,” Sherman adds.

Hayes and Sherman talk about the basics with barley breeding— that yield and disease resistance are musts. And that work continues; but in a changing barley market, where the buyers and sellers are connecting in new ways, barley may be playing a bigger role in the future in not only beer but also food.

Going naked with barley

Hayes likes to use creative names for barley lines he works on with researchers at OSU. And nowhere is that more evident in than in the hull-less, or naked, barley lines developed in Barley World, the OSU barley breeding program.

Two lines coming up to speed for 2020 include Streaker and Buck. “We had some initial certified seed production snafus with Buck, but these are bringing a big step forward in grain yield,” he says.

Hayes notes that he’s looking at multiuse barley. The hull, which once had a role in malting, is less important these days. At one time the hull was used as a natural filtration system, but modern breweries are changing how they use barley with mash filters; and they’re using pulverized barley, where the hull is not useful.

The naked varieties could provide more gallons of beer per pound of malt. And a multiuse hull-less line would have food-use potential, too. “Humans don’t eat barley hulls either,” Hayes quips.

Food uses for hull-less lines may be rising as foodies turn to their attention to more “ancient” grains. Sherman at MSU is working on hull-less barley lines, and she notes the nutritional value of the crop.

“Barley is very nutritious,” she says. “We have a hull-less line that can be cooked like rice for food.” She also notes the university is working on forage barley as well, which can be cut as hay for animal feed and may offer potential for the organic feed market.

Food, beer, forage — barley offers many uses, and that’s a source of optimism for Hayes, who has seen the market fortunes of the crop change. “Not many farmers raise barley for feed; but based on the calls we’re getting, they’re saying if they can’t sell it for malt, with the feed price for wheat now, there’s potential for barley. At the end of the day, it may make sense in some applications to be producing animal feed where needed, and not ship it a long distance.”


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