Revival of malting barley in the Eastern USA

Chris Ridout and Sarah DeVos, John Innes Centre


Chris and Sarah on the ferry from South Baymouth on Manitoulin Island to Tobermory, Ontario

During the summer of 2014, we visited the Eastern USA and Canada to find out more about the revival of malting barley in the region. Our road trip takes us from upstate New York and past the Great Lakes to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, returning via the spiritual Manitoulin Island on Lake Huron to catch our return flight home from Toronto. We met with barley farmers, craft maltsters and brewers, and spoke with barley researchers at Universities and extension stations.

Barley was introduced to the Eastern States of North America by European settlers in the early 1600’s. Most malting barley is now grown in the warm, dry Western States, especially in North Dakota, Idaho, Montana and Washington. The recent strong revival in growing malting barley in the Eastern USA and Canadian provinces is driven by an explosion in craft brewing with huge demand for new and exciting flavours and locally-sourced beer. Eastern states encourage local production through tax incentives such as the Farm Brewery Bill (New York State, 2012).

Malting barley is a demanding crop to grow however, and the conditions in the East are particularly challenging. The high rainfall conditions of the Eastern USA afford excellent barley yields, but they also promote development of diseases. A major problem is Fusarium Head Blight (FHB) which contaminates grain with mycotoxins including deoxynivalenol (DON), a potent poison and risk to human and animal health. The expansion in maize production for biofuel production in the region makes thing worse by providing a source of FHB inoculum and is a significant factor contributing to the increase of this disease. Combined with the hot, humid environment in the Eastern states, FHB is a major challenge in the production of premium quality malting barley.

Barley trials at the Michigan State University Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Centre, Chatham. Left to right, Christian Kapp, Ashley McFarland and Jim Ishleib
Barley trials at the Michigan State University Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Centre, Chatham. Left to right, Christian Kapp, Ashley McFarland and Jim Ishleib

There is an interesting shift from 6-row to 2 row barley in the USA. Most barley produced in the USA has been 6-row spikelet type which provides higher yields and enzyme activity suited to adjunct brewing with other cereals. With the expansion in craft brewing, there is much more interest in two-row, the preferred European type, with higher extract and improved malt quality. North of Pennsylvania, the climate is too harsh to grow winter types. However, winter barley can be grown South of Pennsylvania, and can fit well in the rotation.

We first met up with Mark Sorrells at Cornell, who had started malting barley trials to find varieties most suited to the region. Mark is an expert in genomic selection, and is beginning to apply this now for malting barley improvement; this should help in the rush to find and develop the best varieties. We then travelled west through Canada to Traverse City, a popular tourist spot on the shores of Lake Michigan. We met up with Ashley McFarland at ‘The Filling Station’ – not a garage but a brewpub specialising in spicy and unusual pizzas (yes, including rhubarb!) and strong IPA’s. Ashley had brought along a dozen of her colleagues all with a passion for barley, malting and brewing and we talked about our vision to re-populate the state with our favourite crop. Next day, we visited Alison Babb, Director and maltstress at her new Empire Malting Company, currently under construction. We looked round their hop farm and processing plant, and then drove to the Upper Peninsula where the Michigan State University has its extension field station. Ashley met us the next day and showed us the impressive trials they had carefully managed by crops researcher, Christian Kapp. The barley certainly looked healthy and would make excellent malt for great beer.

We then took the scenic route back crossing over into Canada at Sault Ste Marie and onto Manitoulin Island, home of several native American tribes. We took the ferry from South Baymouth to Tobermory before driving Toronto to take the flight home.

This research was part of a BBSRC follow-on-funding project, and we were able to develop ideas about commercial opportunities for our own research. It was a great trip, and we are really grateful to Ashley and Mark for hosting us and sharing their research with us. We hope to work together in the future to develop malting barley in the Eastern states to make great-tasting, locally-sourced beer.

Chris is a research scientist in the department of Crop Genetics at the John Innes Centre, and Sarah is a BBSRC Enterprise Fellow developing commercial opportunities for heritage barleys.

Brewpubs are springing up all over North America with a selection of tasty beer.
Brewpubs are springing up all over North America with a selection of tasty beer.

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