Barley, barley everywhere, but not a drop to drink (yet)

Mark Sorrells of Cornell shared a bit of history with this map illustrating where barley was being grown in America in the late 19th century.

by Courtney Llewellyn

The Culinary Breeding Network (CBN) kicked off its ambitious virtual Grains Week on May 3 (with assistance from Oregon State University, Cornell University, UW-Madison, eOrganic, the Artisan Grain Collaborative, GrowNYC Grains, Cascadia Grains and the Washington State University), and it covered a lot of topics. Barley was a major theme.

Research is a big part of creating healthier, hardier grains, and a lot has been going on in the world of barley. At WSU, the team has been working on improving spring and winter varieties for malt and food. The major goal is to increase barley acreage in the Pacific Northwest (PNW). They are continuing their research with spring barley, focusing on utilizing parental material with desirable malt qualities (with low beta-glucan, high extract and high alpha amylase) and good agronomics (disease resistance, plant height, solid yield and drought and heat tolerance).

WSU is developing a winter barley breeding program to focus on two-rowed winter malting varieties adapted to the diverse environments of the PNW. Bob Brueggeman, associate professor and the Robert A. Nilan Endowed Chair in Barley Research and Education at WSU, said the program goals here are similar to spring barley, with additional winter hardiness and seedling vigor.

Diseases they noted in Washington State in 2020 included stem rust, stripe rust and scald. Stem rust is an emerging disease problem for both barley and wheat, and it’s becoming a perennial problem.

“We’re working on accelerating the breeding cycle,” Brueggeman said. To do that, they’ve started the WSU Malt Quality Testing Lab to help them find the agronomic traits they need faster.

Kevin Smith of the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at the University of Minnesota spoke a bit about managing fusarium head blight (FHB). Not only does it infect wheat and barley, reducing grain yield and quality, it also creates a mycotoxin/vomitoxin called deoxynivalenol (DON). The good news is that growing naked barley varieties (without hulls) can reduce the risk of DON contamination in grain. That genetic resistance to FHB and DON will be studied for more breed resistance.

Many growers are currently managing FHB with crop rotation (and by avoiding corn, where it can persist for a long time). “It may be possible to breed new naked barley varieties that distribute more DON to the hull [of covered barley] and therefore leave it in the field and out of your food and beer,” Smith said.

Heading farther east, Mark Sorrells, a professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science Plant Breeding and Genetics Section of Cornell CALS, mentioned his barley development program, “Born, Bred and Brewed in New York.” He noted that New York is different than Idaho or Alberta, where barley is more commonly farmed. Precipitation differences shift the breeding focus here to disease resistance and preventing pre-harvest sprouting. There are also different malting quality preferences in the Empire State, and barley growers here are largely serving the craft malting industry.

Cornell has been winnowing down its enormous research options. They started with 1,340 lines of barley in two locations in 2017; then they grew 100 lines in five locations in 2018; then 60 lines in five locations in 2019. Last year, they began on-farm trials, and this year they’ll have certified seed production and on-farm trials. A big win for the program was the introduction of Excelsior Gold, the first malting barley developed exclusively for New York growing conditions.

There are other varieties currently being worked on, including the facultative malting variety Lightning, which was developed with Oregon State University.

Speaking of – Patrick Hayes, professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences at OSU, stated they’re developing multi-use naked barley for organic systems. “The biggest hurdle I see is that it’s hard to reflect the rotations organic growers are able to implement [in our studies],” he said. Luckily, they have some exciting varieties in the works, including Thunder (a winter two-row which is good for growers, maltsters, brewers and the environment), the aforementioned Lightning (with good disease resistance and the flexibility of facultative growth habit) and more. Because of the different industries the barley could go to, Hayes said they’re considering “terroir, variety and variety x terroir.” The recently opened OSU Malthouse should help with that project.

OSU is also conducting the Distiller’s Delight Trial (DDT), which aims to determine if nitrogen management allows the same variety to be used to produce malt for all-malt distillers and adjunct distillers. (We’ll be keeping an eye out for results from this trial.)

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