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.