When beer connoisseurs sip their favorite brew, conversation turns to comments like "hoppy notes" or "piney background." They may comment on the "yeasty finish," but seldom does a beer drinker say "barley makes the difference." That could be changing if research at Oregon State University is any indication.
Long playing second fiddle to hops and yeast as a flavor component in beer, barley may someday take center stage.
Two studies published recently in the Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists showed differences in the tastes of beers malted from barley varieties reputed to have flavor qualities. The work was conducted by a team led by Oregon State University.
The highly-competitive craft beer market has already turned the U.S. hops industry on its head as more varieties of this key flavor component are raised across the country. A "barley forward" brew could be a way for an innovator to set his or herself apart in the market. But don't look for that innovation just yet.
The research findings are important according to Pat Hayes, OSU barley breeder, and could be a potential new market for brewers and their customers. He noted that the research work started with the question: "Are there novel flavors in barley that carry through malting and brewing into beer?"
BARLEY BREEDER: Oregon State University barley breeder Patrick Hayes holds a stalk of golden barley in a test plot at Hyslop Farm, near Corvallis, Ore.
Hayes noted that this is a "revolutionary idea in the brewing world. We found that the answer is yes. These positive beer flavor attributes provide new opportunities for brewers and expanded horizons for consumers."
In its malted form, barley is the principal source of fermentable sugars for most beers. Usually, barley's role in enhancing flavor is credited to the malting process, not the barley variety itself.
Hayes’ research group at OSU is called Barley World. With financial support from the beer industry, Barley World has begun work on two varieties reputed to have positive flavor attributes in beer: Golden Promise, developed and released in Great Britain; and Full Pint, OSU's only barley variety. Then they cross bred the two varieties.
Hayes noted that the cross breeding project led to several hundred breeding lines of genetic seed stock. Offspring from the project were grown in test plots in western Oregon cities of Corvallis and Lebanon, and the central Oregon city of Madras.
Solving a test issue
The trouble is that the testing project had a logistical problem. Progeny of Golden Promise and Full Pint each yielded only about 200 grams of malt. That's not enough for a reasonable sample to produce large quantities of beer for a standard sensory panel. Enter technology and innovation.
OSU teamed with Rahr Malting Co. in Minnesota and New Glarus Brewing in Wisconsin. The two companies have developed a "nano" brewing system that could produce a single bottle of beer from each unique malt type.
Dustin Herb, Oregon State University
TESTING BREWS: Bob Monsour, brewing research scientist at Rahr Malting Co. in Shakopee, Minn., bottles beer brewed from barley grown by Oregon State University barley breeders.
Graduate student Dustin Herb had the charge of working at Rahr Malting for almost a year. Herb participated in micro-malting, nano-brewing and sensory processes.
From that initial partnership, about 150 beers were prepared for sensory testing. Each panelist tasted each of the beers once and then rated it on a scale in its amount of difference compared to an industry standard control beer. The results? Panelists found that beer brewed with Golden Promise scored significantly higher in fruity, floral and grassy flavors. Beer with Full Pint was significantly higher in malty, toffee and toasted flavors.
Hayes explained that the progeny are showing all possible combinations of those traits and researchers conducted DNA fingerprinting on the progeny. This allowed them to assign certain regions of the barley genome as being responsible for specific flavors. "We also found that there were some differences based on where the barley was grown, but the genetic effect was larger than the environment," he says.
Based on the results of more Golden Promise-Full Pint progeny, finer structure genetic mapping of barley flavor genes is underway with Rahr Malting Co. The researchers are also working with Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Ore., to brew more representative beers from three of the selected progeny. OSU is producing 100 pounds of malt of each of three selections, and of a control variety called Copeland, in its on-campus malt house.
All three barley varieties have unique flavor attributes and are easy to grow, Hayes says. "Deschutes will brew the same beer twice for each of those three and compare that to the control. Those beers will be sent to other brewers who will conduct their own sensory panels."
In addition to Herb, OSU Barley Project members Tanya Filichkin, Scott Fisk and Laura Helgerson each contributed to the research. Collaborators included scientists in England, Canada, Scotland, Spain and the United States.
The project received funding from the following breweries: Bell’s, Deschutes, Firestone Walker, New Glarus, Russian River, Sierra Nevada and Summit. The Brewers Association, an organization of small and independent craft brewers, also contributed financially. Mecca Grade Estate Malting and OreGro Seeds hosted the field trials.
Source: Oregon State University