Pat Hayes heads up the OSU barley project, which focuses on exploring the creation of a strain that’s specifically designed to appeal to craft brewers. The theory is that by selectively breeding specific barley strains, researchers can produce one that will not only influence the flavor of beer, but also gain unique characteristics due to the terroir. Photos by Kris McDowell
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Brewing isn't particularly technical, right? If one can make soup, one can make beer; just acquire the needed ingredients, follow the instructions and in a matter of weeks, tada … beer! But if one takes a closer look at the process, from the viewpoint of a researcher focusing on a single ingredient, there's more than meets the eye. Pat Hayes, a barley researcher at Oregon State University (OSU), is one of the people who is diving well below the surface of currently available barley and influencing the future of barley, thanks in large part to technology that did not exist even a decade ago.
Pat heads up the OSU barley project, which focuses, in part, on exploring the creation of a strain that’s specifically designed to appeal to craft brewers. The theory is that by selectively breeding specific barley strains, researchers can produce one that will not only influence the flavor of beer, but also gain unique characteristics due to the terroir, or the environment in which it’s been grown. Terroir is a term more commonly used by winemakers and understandably so, since most barley grown to be malted comes from multiple states. Oregon "is an epicenter of craft brewing and distilling," according to Hayes, but even as these industries have grown, less and less Oregon-grown barley is being utilized. Pat hopes to change that by creating a variety that will not only grow well in Oregon, but will also perhaps contribute unique flavors to beer BECAUSE it’s grown here.
Considerable work in breeding and selecting has already been done by Pat and his team at OSU to the point where an experimental variety called Oregon Promise is being grown on test plots. The name was developed because the strain came from a cross of Full Pint, which is bred in Oregon, and Golden Promise, which grows in Scotland and is a favorite of craft brewers. These test plots provide far less than the minimum 30,000 pounds of grain for the smallest batch at Great Western Malting based in Vancouver, Wash. or even the relatively diminutive 1,000 pound batches malted at Mecca Grade Estate Malt in Madras. To solve that problem in the first phase of breeding, Pat and other barley breeders around the world use "micro malters," machines that can malt just a few hundred grams of barley. The machines aren’t cheap — they can run as high as $100,000. But these malters can steep, germinate and kiln around 50 samples of this size at one time, an essential first step in breeding to produce flavor in beer. New Glarus Brewing in Wisconsin, one of the partners in OSU’s program, have pioneered a technique to brew a single bottle of beer from less than 200 grams (a little more than 7 ounces) of malt and are using it to test samples of Oregon Promise. The next step up is a mini-malting machine, one of which OSU recently purchased, that’s housed in a room about the size of a two-car garage. It will be able to produce 200 pounds of malt per run and should be ready to begin operating in October.
Once the barley has been malted, it's ready to be used to brew beer. But outside of the technique New Glarus Brewery has developed, researchers still need to make very small batches. A consumer product that recently hit the market, PicoBrew Zymatic, is a potential gold mine to barley researchers. Not only does the product make just 2.5 gallons of beer per batch, it allows for people across the country to brew on the exact same equipment.
At this point one might be wondering why brewing with the exact same equipment in multiple locations should matter to researchers exploring an Oregon-grown variety of barley. The answer is that in order to determine if this particular variety of barley does indeed contribute unique flavor profiles to beer, it needs to be grown in different places.
If this process seems like an awful lot of work, it is, but it’s one that without those technological advances would make small-batch malting and brewing prohibitively expensive for most. In the long run, the potential economic impact of this work for Oregon-grown barley could be substantial. Just think — in the future, craft brewers may be clamoring for Oregon Promise malt, made from barley that is only grown in Oregon because of the unique flavor profile it adds to their beer.
Barley may be the most overlooked ingredient in beer, but it plays a critical background role that Oregon State University professor Pat Hayes likens to the bass solo in a song. Additionally, researchers are working on creating new varieties of barley and farm trials are underway. Pictured here is a combine harvesting Rogue’s barley fields last summer. Photo courtesy of Rogue Ales and Spirits
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Of the four ingredients in beer, barley is perhaps the most underrated. It doesn't have the flashiness of hops, with new varieties seemingly coming out every day. It doesn't have the environmental gravitas of water, the most abundant ingredient in beer by volume. It doesn't have the lingering mystique of yeast that harkens back to the time before yeast was a recognized beer ingredient. That leaves barley, the most predominantly used grain for malt, as the often-overlooked ingredient. But just like "no one puts Baby in the corner," barley is deserving of its own time in the spotlight.
While barley tends to get taken for granted, Oregon State University barley breeding and products professor Pat Hayes puts it in perspective saying that, "Without malt there wouldn't be the opportunity to showcase hops and yeast. It plays a critical background role but rarely gets to move to the front." He likens being able to pick the flavor of barley out in a beer to picking out the bass solo out in a song. The comparison is apt because base malts, which are lightly kilned and have low color, don’t provide much flavor. That isn't to say there is no contribution to beer's flavor from malt; in fact, there are a wide variety of specialty malts that do contribute more distinct characteristics. Craft brewers by far use more specialty malts than mainstream, adjunct brewers and have been the primary drivers in the growth and evolution of the specialty malt market.
Before malt is created, barley must be grown, most of which is called spring barley that is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. As an agricultural crop, barley provides some potential challenges for farmers. The revenue per acre for can be lower than what could be made growing other crops, setting up a situation in which it may be replaced with more lucrative crops. In addition, there is a secondary market for barley that doesn’t meet the specifications of malting companies. But that market — animal feed — is priced in favor of other crops, corn in particular, whose price is lamentably low due to national policies. Sadly, it may be cheaper for an Oregon farmer to buy Midwest-grown corn for feed than it is to purchase a neighboring farmer's barley.
Finally, barley grown for malting requires it to be a still-living thing, 99 percent viable, when it arrives to be processed into malt. That viability is influenced by handling during harvest and transport (an extra logistical consideration) as well as the moisture content at the time of harvest. Fall rains can be detrimental to the quality of the barley, a risk that’s minimized when malting companies contract with farmers in diverse geographical areas and supplement their spring barley crop with winter barley, which is typically harvested about a month earlier. Great Western Malting, a historical West Coast supplier to craft brewers, buys barley from northern California up through Washington and east to Idaho and Montana.
The variety of barley each farmer grows is based on the suitability of the climate it's grown in and provides only minor differences that are negated by malting. The process of turning barley into malt can be compared to turning bread into toast, one in which it is the process that is more influential on the finished product than what the starting product was. Great Western Malting produces 30 different types of malts to provide craft brewers with the variety and selection that they seek.
With that said, the starting product — the barley itself — is an area that continues to evolve as well. Researchers like Pat Hayes at Oregon State University are exploring the creation of new varieties of barley, which beyond having the ability of being malted into different types, may actually contribute their own unique flavors to beer. One such exploration is the crossing of Golden Promise, a barley strain that produces a malt craft brewers favor, with Full Pint, a variety that some hope will yield unique flavors. The hybrid creation, called Oregon Promise, is currently being grown in Madras. Oregon State University is in the process of conducting farm trials, moving beyond small plot production and working with industry partners who are starting to make the tiniest batches of beers with the grain.
Digressing slightly, standard batches of barley to be malted range from 30,000-350,000 pounds where as 5-by-20 test plots can be expected to yield only around 11 pounds. There’s no simple way to malt that small of an amount, currently. But that’s not stopping some from figuring out a way to do so, providing researchers with a way to determine whether they’ve gotten the results they were hoping for in the preliminary stages. One such venture is related to Pat Hayes' work in which Wisconsin's New Glarus Brewing Company has been able to develop a process utilizing less than a half a pound of malt to make a batch of beer that is equivalent to a single bottle. There’s a big gap between that highly specialized process and the smallest batch size of 30,000 pounds from Great Western Malting.
Just as craft brewers respond to the demand of consumers, so too is there at least one malting company working to fill the gap in malt batch sizes. A student from Pat Hayes' program is heading to Rahr Malting Company in Minnesota to work on a small scale malting/brewing/analyzing pipeline. The outcome of that work should expedite the exploration of barley’s contribution to beer flavor, starting with the Oregon Promise variety.
Developments like creating new barley strains, malting previously unheard of small batches and making a single-bottle batch of beer are exciting. And it’s things like this that may result in barley becoming the next frontier in craft beer.
For more information, visit the Oregon State University Barley Project site.
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