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The Main Grain

The Future of Beer header
The Main Grain

Aroma hops create a rainbow of pale ales, and along with yeasts, a host of flavors. But what about barley? Malted barley is the main ingredient in beer; but until recently, brewers had few choices of barley bred for malting.

Pat Hayes in a barley field

Pat Hayes is truly outstanding in his field. As head of OSU’s barley breeding program, he leads development of new malting barley varieties for the brewing industry. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum.)

There are many types of barley used for many different things. Pat Hayes, head of the barley breeding program at Oregon State University, has probed the genetic characteristics of these varieties, matching just the right characteristics of, say, yield, disease-resistance, and nutritional value, to create modern varieties of the world’s oldest grain for milling, cooking, or feeding livestock.

Now, in response to the burgeoning craft brewing industry, Hayes’s research is moving rapidly to develop new, more interesting choices for malting barley.

Malted barley is where beer begins. Malt is made by soaking and sprouting whole barley grains, then kilning those sprouted grains to develop a range of toasty flavors. Germination creates a suite of enzymes that break down barley from starchy grain to fermentable sugars that yeast can feed on. Malting has a transformative effect that Hayes considers the soul of beer.

The focus of Hayes’s early malting barley research was on winter 6-row, a disease-resistant type that could meet mainstream beer specifications. These were standard barley varieties, predictable in malting, but they offered limited variety in brewing. Then a new generation of craft brewers arose, with a taste for flavors beyond the predictable. Hayes’s Barley World research team began breeding malting barley with an emphasis on flavor to expand the malt choices for brewers.

beer batch

Small-batch testing, essential in variety trials, is done with OSU’s student-designed mini-malter. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum.)

From grain to glass, it can take up to 12 years to develop a promising variety of barley, Hayes says. To accelerate the process, his research team has developed a process of so-called double-haploid breeding that uses pollen to create genetically pure lines of barley in just one generation, without adding or subtracting DNA. Their goal is to map the genes that control flavor as well as malting quality, and to select them along with cold tolerance, disease resistance, and productivity suitable for the Pacific Northwest.

Up until now, the industry has depended on differently processing a few barley breeds to create beer from light to dark. Dustin Herb, a researcher in Hayes’s lab, is going straight to the grain to explore the broader spectrum of flavors that might be created with a broader choice of barley varieties. And he’s exploring even farther, to the landscapes where barley is grown, to understand the distinctive characteristics related to barley’s terroir.

And remember, distinction is the goal of this new generation of craft brewers.