“OSU doesn’t toot its own horn, but is doing revolutionary work.” Seth Klann would be the first one to toot it for the barley breeding program. His family farm, Mecca Grade Estate Malt in Madras, has built its livelihood on growing and malting Full Pint barley, a forerunner of the many breeds under development at Oregon State University. The program, directed by professor Pat Hayes, recently received a grant from the Brewers Association to continue its research into barley’s contribution to beer flavor.
At first blush, a project about barley flavor might sound odd; of course barley contributes flavor to beer. But until now, there has been no evidence to prove it. In the U.S., two main varieties make up the bulk of production: Copeland and Metcalfe. Klann describes the contribution of these barleys as, “the equivalent of a watery flavorless tomato.”
Klann and Hayes are on the hunt for Oregon’s terroir, and hints of its effect on barley showed up in a recent experiment.
“We are digging deeper, back to the variety itself and the ~30,000 genes that make barley a unique cereal grain,” wrote Hayes in the April 2017 issue of “Oregon Wheat” magazine. He is referring in part to research by Dustin Herb published last year in the “Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists.”
This is big news for barley. The concept of terroir has been cultural knowledge for generations upon generations, especially among vintners. The idea that the same plants grown in geographically (and geologically) different locations will taste slightly different is not new; the ability of scientists to analyze genetic and environmental variation is.
There is a catch: whereas hops can be used with minimal processing, barley must be malted. The germination process transforms the makeup of the grain, and the kilning process adds most of the familiar malt flavors. Distinguishing between barley flavor and the malting process complicates the experiment. Well, Herb and his team performed two experiments, working closely with Mecca Grade, Rahr Malting and seven craft breweries around the country. After extensive chemical and sensory analysis on close to 200 small batches of beer, the study confirmed that the type of barley and its growth environment do create different flavors in beer.
Breeding barley for flavor creates an industrial compromise. Full Pint was rejected by the American Malting Barley Association due to its physical and chemical makeup, and riskiness in the field. “Any late-season moisture is a risk” for pre-harvest sprouting, says Laura Helgerson, part of the barley breeding team at OSU.
“When it gets to the malt house, unless you’re set up to do it it can be a real pain in the ass. It takes longer to germinate,” says Klann. He doesn’t have to worry too much about late-season moisture; Madras only gets 8 inches of rain per year.
Searching for the Next Pint
Mecca Grade will never be the size of Great Western or Briess, and Klann wants it that way. The farm uses its own seed to sow its fields rather than purchasing seed barley. As part of a growing number of small malting facilities in the country, Mecca Grade may be the only one that grows and malts its own barley on a contiguous piece of land, and alone in the goal of actively seeking its own distinct character. Klann also grows test plots, where various crosses are given a chance to strut their stuff.
The test plots are part of a project at OSU sponsored by Mecca Grade, called Next Pint. Klann initially took seeds from 160 spring barleys (planted in April, as opposed to winter barley, planted in autumn) and grew them on small plots. Some of the seeds came from as far off as Tibet and the Middle East. After selecting for a multitude of traits during three years, including sturdiness in the field and disease resistance, just five varieties were chosen to propagate, malt and mash.
“I’m gearing up to make beer on the Pico system to see what the flavor is like,” says Klann, referring to the self-contained PicoBrew homebrew appliance that many in the industry use to test ingredients with consistency. There is an element of angst to this endeavor. “What happens if one of these varieties fell flat in the field but was like the next Maris Otter?” asks Klann, in reference to the premium English malting barley.
His thought was echoed by Hayes: “What a dream, to find the next Maris Otter or Golden Promise.”
Since the Industrial Age, technology has replaced the value of many commercial products’ personality with the value of reproducibility. “If you think about malting, it’s followed the same trajectory as big beer. Prohibition happens, brewing gets consolidated and you have production in the hands of a few that demand more and more barley,” says Klann.
What’s next for barley flavor remains to be tasted, but the progress Mecca Grade and OSU have made is an essential chapter in modern beer history. •