If barley breeders have their way, beer lovers will soon be demanding beers based on barley variety as they currently do with hop varieties.

If you were to ask a brewer to name a barley variety – not a malt type – chances are the first one they name is Maris Otter. This famed British barley variety is prized for its bready, slightly nutty flavor. For this reason, it commands a premium price sufficient to offset the notoriously low yield the variety produces on the farm.

Maris Otter was first introduced in 1966. Unlike hops, where new, flavorful varieties capture the attention of brewers and drinkers every year, in the opinion of many brewers, no new barley variety in almost 60 years has been able to supplant Maris Otter on top of the flavor pyramid.

Modern barley breeders hope to change that. Using new technologies, including genetic analysis and sensory analytics, breeders are finding out what makes malt taste good and using that knowledge to develop new barley varieties for the modern farmer and the modern brewer.

“Barley varieties that dominate the market today were not bred for positive contribution to beer flavor,” says Patrick Hayes, who heads a research team at Oregon State University. “They were bred to meet farmer expectations, like yield and disease resistance, and maltster needs, like protein levels, enzyme package and dormancy.” 

A new breed of barley might get removed from further trials if it tasted odd, but no new breed was chosen because it tasted uniquely good. This is because, for decades, barley breeding has been driven by the large brewers, who want barley to produce neutral flavor and as much extract as possible with a high enzyme package, so they can add low-enzymatic adjuncts like corn or rice.

Although there has been talk of barley flavor, it is very difficult for breeders to pin down. “In breeding, we can select for any attribute,” says Hayes, “But we need a definition and a means to measure it.” 

New Tools Allow Testing of Smaller Amounts of Grain

Hayes wanted to answer the call from craft brewers to provide a barley that had better flavor, but that concept was so far removed from the prior decades of breeding, it was hard to determine where to start. He overcame practical issues such as how to consistently malt as little as 500 grams of barley per cross and how to make consistent beer from it (it is essentially a single bottle of beer) and how to conduct sensory analysis on hundreds of beers at once. 

Now, by combining trained sensory panels and computer analytics, metabolomic analysis and DNA fingerprinting, Hayes can not only confirm that different barley varieties provide different flavors, but that those different flavors can be described and quantified.

Armed with these tools, Hayes and his team went about creating two new barley varieties. Starting in 2012, the OSU team began breeding one variety where Maris Otter was a parent and starting in 2014, they began breeding another where Golden Promise – probably the second-most lauded British barley variety – was a parent. The result: Lontra and Oregon Promise, respectively.

Unfortunately, the malthouse that received the Oregon Promise barley ceased operations in 2023 before the first brewery-sized batch could be tested. That grain remains in storage, awaiting a malthouse willing to assist the OSU team evaluate it. But the Lontra was malted by California’s Admiral Maltings in two batches, one floor malted and one pneumatic malted, and used by Deschutes Brewery in pilot brews.

These pilot brews were assessed by a panel of tasters including Master Brewers Association of the Americas members, and staff from Deschutes Brewery and pFriem Family Brewers. These were compared against beers brewed with floor- and pneumatic-malted malt of another new Oregon State barley named Thunder.

“The panel liked the floor-malted Lontra the most,” says Curtis Davenport, head maltster and co-founder of Admiral Maltings. “Flavor differences are subtle,” he says. “It’s more of a likeability factor.” The panel described the flavor of Lontra with words like “cereal/bready” and “caramel/honey” followed by “sweetness,” “grassy/herbal,” “floral,” “fruity,” “citrus” and “nutty.” Some even said Lontra had vegetal aromas and bitterness.

Barley breeding takes a long time – at least a decade from initial cross to registered variety – and if Oregon State’s work is any indication, payoffs are incremental. Thankfully, the idea of breeding for flavor has taken hold with breeders across North America, so Hayes and his team are not the only ones working on it.

Montana State University and Metabolites

At Montana State University, Jamie Sherman leads a breeding team trying to identify genetic markers that show good flavor. The key to their program is malting their barley at an earlier stage, often after just one generation in the field. 

“We can then taste the wort and get an idea of the differences,” says Sherman. “I was surprised by how much different varieties taste different from each other.” 

Sherman’s team then measures and analyzes the metabolites in the different barley breeds. While the jury is still out as to whether metabolites necessarily result in better tasting beer, metabolites are an objective measure that breeders can make crosses for. 

“We need something we can measure,” Sherman repeats. “Now we have to make a connection between the metabolites and people’s tastes.”

Montana State University has registered Buzz, a barley variety that has a lot of maltol, a metabolite which Sherman’s team says is the flavor compound malt is known for.

“We’re stoked about how it plays in hoppy beers after using Buzz pilsner as our primary base malt for a couple of months,” says Audra Johansen, head brewer at Seattle’s Ravenna Brewing Company. “Sensory-wise, it has a solid structure, well-suited for West Coast IPAs, allowing the hops to shine and giving the finished beer a crisp edge […] Buzz has solid technical performance for brewers while working well for farmers and maltsters, and it’s fantastic to see how farmers are helping drive innovation in craft malt.”

Breeding Efforts in Canada Finally Turn To Flavor

In Alberta, Canada, Flavio Capettini has bred barley for over 35 years, most recently with the Field Crop Development Centre in Lacombe, Alberta. “I always saw differences in the flavor of different barley varieties,” he says. “But you have to prioritize your resources in breeding.” 

Those priorities were always agronomics.

Photo by Shane Groendahl.

“As time passes, we have more tools and can work in more detail,” says Capettini, who was able to finally turn his attention to flavor several years ago. Working outside of his mandated research, Capettini used his academic freedom to pursue a genetics-driven flavor project, working with over 20 heirloom varieties and with the community support of the nearby Hamill Family Farm, which is also home to Red Shed Malting. 

The Hamills are willing to dedicate valuable acreage to trialing new varieties and have the ability to malt small batches so local breweries can evaluate their flavor. One variety, dubbed Lowe, has shown promise in the field, malthouse and brewhouse.

Blindman Brewing, located in Lacombe, near the Field Crop Development Centre, has made a couple of beers from Lowe (seeded and swathed using horses and antique equipment, no less). “Lowe barley has a very nice malt flavor,” says Shane Groendahl, co-founder at Blindman. “The flavor has a base grain-y note, that I find is fairly distinct. It has some soft honey notes and finishes with a lingering chewy sweetness.”

“We’re still growing it, but it has not been adopted very widely in the field,” says Capettini. “But brewers love it. The bottom line is: breeding for flavor can be done.”

The Long Path To New Barley by Don Tse
Yakima Valley Hops
Yakima Valley Hops

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