By Gail Oberst
Doubled haploids: Think you don’t care about them? Put your beer down and read. This is important info for all beer drinkers.
My journey started with Barley Day at Oregon State University, where, oddly enough (to me) the conversation was not entirely about beer. Get this … I learned that people actually EAT barley.
Wow, what a versatile grain.
The point of this day dedicated to barley was to enlighten those of us in the beer and food industries about the tiny grains that, according to beer geeks everywhere, helped settle the nomadic world.
But forget ancient history. Behind most glasses of today’s Oregon’s ales is a bundle of research dedicated to growing, processing, cooking, malting and brewing barley.
Now, back to the doubled haploids. If not for research into barley propagation techniques such as those at OSU, you might have to wait a long time for researchers to breed barleys that do magic things like shake off diseases or withstand wet conditions like those in Oregon. Instead, researchers are breeding and growing these barleys now. And that research promises better barleys for the future.
Okay, you can pick your beer back up, and take a long, grateful swallow. Oregon may never be the main resource for the barley in your Oregon beer, but some day – thanks to this research – there may be more Oregon barley available for brewers.
In typical roguish fashion, Rogue is already growing and malting some of its own proprietary barley on 200 acres in Tygh Valley, in Central Oregon’s Wasco County.
A LOT OF EXCITING STATISTICS
According to the Oregon’s field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Oregon grew just 25.4 million bushels of barley last year, a small fraction of the 220 million bushels grown in the U.S. About 53,000 acres were harvested in 2012, up from 32,000 the year before, so the acreage is growing. Oregon is not the only state to experience barley expansion. U.S. production of barley grew by 41 percent last year, thanks in no small part to growing demand from craft brewers. By the way, Patrick Hayes of OSU’s Barley Project says that 120,000 acres of barley would satisfy all of Oregon’s current brewing and distilling needs. Step it up, farmers!
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS YOU DIDN’T ASK
Where does Oregon’s barley grow? Is it close to the breweries?
First question: According to Oregon’s NASS, of the 12 Oregon counties that grew any barley to speak of in 2011, only one was in Western Oregon – Washington County. The rest were in 11 counties in Central and Eastern Oregon, where dry conditions promote healthy grains.
The second question hardly matters, so why did I ask it? Because you may think it does. You don’t just toss a bunch of barley into the fermenter and “poof,” beer happens. Beer is made of malted grains, and so almost all of the barley grown in those 11 counties detours to Country Malt/Great Western Malting in Vancouver, across the Columbia River from Portland. At Great Western, after malting, a tiny bit of the Oregon-grown barley malt is bagged separately as Oregon Select Malt. The rest is blended with finished malt made from barley grown in six other Western states. It is then shipped all over the world. Because the Vancouver company is Ground Zero for much of the West’s malting Oregon has great access to the West’s malted barley – not to mention malts from around the world available through Country Malt Group, the warehouse and distribution arm of Great Western Malting Company.
THE FUTURE OF OREGON BEER
OSU’s research could further improve brewers’ access to Oregon’s barley, especially to those who want to offer small batches of all-Oregon beers, as Rogue does now. Rogue has been a great company for spending time and energy on things that might work, with occasional success. The barley farm in Tygh Valley is also home to Rogue’s malting floors. Rogue is among a few breweries that offer beers made with all-Oregon products including “Good Chit,” and others. In a related note, Rogue’s Independence Hopyard Farm, in the Willamette Valley, valiantly attempted to grow barley there without much success. Last year’s barley fields in Independence are now filled with pumpkins and other farm produce that does well in the Valley including honey, livestock, roses, nuts, berries, rye and acres and acres of hops.
Western Oregon farmers in no small way look to OSU for new breeds of barley that can give new meaning to the words “local beer.” Beer barley breeds able to withstand west-side cool, wet conditions are in experimental fields and greenhouses right now. Some of that barley is already in your bottle.
In OSU’s greenhouses, researchers tell visitors how the doubled haploids are part of a propagation technique in which plants are germinated directly from pollen. This allows researchers to bring plants to seed in 2 to 3 months, rather than an entire year. As a result, experimental breeds can be grown and tested 3 or 4 times faster than in traditional breeding programs. Viola! Better barleys! Better beers!
“It’s a fast and efficient method,” said Alfanso Cuesta-Marcos, an OSU researcher who has developed DNA modeling that predicts – with 73 percent accuracy -- how barley will fare in the field.
OSU’s beer-related research is not limited to the field. The university’s Food Science and Mechanical Engineer programs are working together to develop a small malting plant – small enough to fit in a brewery.
The experimental malter under construction in OSU’s experimental brewery can turn 300 pounds of barley in 4 to 7 days into enough malt for a three-barrel system, replacing the time and labor-intensive floor malting system with a one-vessel automatic system. Earlier this year, Jeff Clawson, pilot plant and brewery manager for OSU’s Food Science program, said students and staff are still working out the malter’s kinks. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, farms like Zack Christensen’s Heritage Malts operation west of McMinnville are experimenting with updated floor malting techniques that could bring small batches of malted barley to the public.
“The Willamette Valley could be a phenomenal malt barley production area,” said Clawson.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.