There are some jobs that are really hard to explain to people. When people ask me what my wife does for a living, I always brace for a blank stare when I tell them what she does. She is an agronomist in a barley lab at the U of M. Crickets. Some people will actually attempt to slink away. This is incredibly awkward if they were the ones who asked. Truth be told, at first, I had a hard time explaining to others what she did in Kevin Smith’s lab at the U of M.
Last week, I had the opportunity to see first-hand at the University of Minnesota Barley Breeding Program’s Barley U field day at the St. Paul Campus. The chances are high that you have driven past the fields on Larpenteur on the Saint Paul campus at least a hundred times. Did you know that in various plots amongst the field that different breeds of barley, wheat, and rye are being grown and researched? A collective of brewers, farmers, maltsters, and scientists gathered in the breeze to learn about the breeding process and how relationships between all parties can be forged.
Learning from the professors and grad students about the different facets of barley is fascinating. For someone who enjoys it in an extremely polished form, to see how a varietal starts out is mind-blowing. It is also interesting to learn about the differing perspectives of the grower/farmer and the maltster/brewer. To a farmer, barley is a crop. To a brewer, barley is an ingredient. A brewer wants consistency in the grain, but the grower knows that Mother Nature has a different plan altogether. Let’s back up and start at the beginning.
What’s In A Grain Station
The timeline from when a grower crosses parents of a seed to when a cultivar (barley varietal) is released is about 8-10 years. I know, that is almost the entirety of The Sopranos series in human years! Just hearing that should give you a frame of reference for respecting how impressive this science is. The first station was all about how the barley seeds come to be and the process is fascinating.
The barley seed is made of up of 3 anthers (male parts) and 1 stigma (female part). In order to cross barley lines, you need to emasculate the plants. This process sounds like it involves a lot of yelling and put-downs, but that is not the case. This process involves taking a young plant, before it forms the grain, and cut into it to remove the anthers. You then cover it to prevent it from pollinating for a few days. Once that time has passed, you add in several anthers from a different cross. Then you take data and analyze the heck out of it.
Once crosses are made, different varieties of crosses are planted in the field and monitored. In addition to crossing plants to help increase yield, the scientist at the U of M are attempting to get plants to be less susceptible to disease. I am not just talking the barley flu here, I am talking things that will actually wipe out a huge part of the crop!
Barley Disease Station
This was all about looking at the plants in the field and learning about what types of things will plague a yield or decimate a crop. The fields that we looked at have winter rye, winter wheat, and winter barley growing.
This sounds like the name of an 80’s metal cover band, but it is a serious issue for barley. It lives up to its name and is easy to spot because it looks like rust on the stalk of the barley plant. When it is present, it will leave a reddish dust on your boots. In most cases, this disease will decrease the yield in a crop. However, in extreme cases, it can decimate the entire crop.
When the presenter said, “Ok, now we are going to look at some smut,” I half expected a Shinder’s employee from the mid-80s to come out into the field and pass out periodicals. However, instead of adult material, we learned about one of the harshest things that can plague barley. What is interesting and scary about barley smut is that it doesn’t reveal itself until the plant flowers. Conceivably, the farmer could think that everything is peachy keen with the crop because the plants will look healthy. When the flowers form, instead of healthy heads growing atop the plant, you get blackened spores. This fungus stems from infected seeds. So, make sure your barley seed is certified and not procured out of the trunk of a van in South St. Paul.
Again, a barley disease and not a name for a band. File this under the category of diseases that is easy to spot because it is literally a powdery mildew that grows on the plant. The scary thing about powdery mildew is that it can survive from season to season. Like the other diseases, powdery mildew will decrease the yield of a crop which is bad for farmers and brewers alike.
Fusarium Head Blight
This is also known as Scab and it is a bad mamajama. It leads to decreased yields, but also affects the end use of a barley crop. The fungus that causes Fusarium head blight creates a neurotoxin as a byproduct called deoxynivalenol (DON). DON is not only toxic to humans and other mammals, it causes problems in the brewing process with excess foaming.
Farmers can’t sell barley to a malt elevator that has DON greater than 0.5-2 parts per million (ppm) depending on the year. Large maltsters have the ability to blend higher DON lots with lower to use more grain at a lower total DON ppm. They can also store grain and wait for DON toxin to dissipate. These options are a challenge for small maltsters with less storage space.
Harvesting Barley Station
This station introduced us to how the fields are harvested in different ways. They have equipment that looks a lot older than you would think. It was explained that the older equipment is still effective because it works and it a lot easier to clean than the more modern equipment. As one of the scientists put it, ” There are too many nooks and crannies where stuff can hide in that thing.”
Barley: Crop vs. Ingredient
We also got a really good understanding of how barley is viewed from diverse perspectives. The farmer views the grain as a crop and the maltster/brewer views it as an ingredient. This can be a challenge because brewers want consistency in their product and ingredients they use. The farmer knows that the same cultivar of barley can be different from season to season as a result of temperature, precipitation, and disease. Dr. Jochum Wiersma uses an analogy of a Formula 1 racer to explain the challenge of growing barley. You have split second decision time with very little information. The curveballs that mother nature throws further complicate matters. Wiersma went on to say that an unseasonably warm day in May could change the makeup of a specific cultivar.
The U of MN is willing to work with maltsters and brewers to create different cultivars of barley to impart desirable characteristics in beer. In turn, the maltsters and brewers need to find ways to manage variability. In Minnesota in 1930, there were around 400,000 acres of barley. Currently, the amount of acreage sits at around 100,000. The result of this decrease over the years is that maltsters have to use all barley available as opposed to being selective with what they chose to malt.
What Does This Mean For a Craft Brewer?
So, what does the mean for someone other than Summit or Schell’s? Tin Whiskers’ owner Jeff Moriarty says that a slight difference in an ingredient is fine for a seasonal brew, but can be problematic for a flagship. According to Moriarty, a seasonal beer will probably be a little different and that is acceptable. As far as a flagship is concerned, Tin Whiskers uses lots of sensory analysis to ensure consistency from one batch to the next.
Wiersma’s advice to breweries that seek consistency in grains they use from one year to the next: keep grain reserves. Otherwise, reconcile the fact that there will be slight differences from one year to the next even though you are getting the same grain. Of course, for a brewery to have the ability to keep reserves of grain requires a lot of resources; something a new or smaller brewery probably doesn’t have.
After all that learning, I was happy to make it to the tent with refreshments and local beer offerings. Learning about the journey of barley from the greenhouse to the beer is mind-blowing. I have a huge respect for the final product. The amount of passion and intellect that every person along they way has is astounding. As barley continues to become a viable crop, it will hopefully reach the levels of acreage of the 1930s. That will also mean that the quality of malt in our beer will be high.
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