The Day I Learned About Barley

Once upon a time I didn’t have a clue about barley breeding and malting (okay, like yesterday at 5:55 pm), then I went to a lecture at the High Desert Museum that changed all that. Not enough for me to join the lab when I get back to campus Monday morning, but enough for me to write a blog post based on my notes.

So no follow up questions. Unless you want to know if I might like this.

If you have them I suggest you click over to and if you want pictures check out their Flickr page. 

On the panel was Scott Fisk, barley breeding researcher and resident maltster at OSU, and Dustin Herb, graduate research assistant in OSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Science who works on barley and malting. After an hour listening to these two the world was clear. Then in the second half Seth Klann from Mecca Grade Estate Malt talked about his family history (he’s a 7th generation farmer) and how they farm and malt barley in the High Desert.

Barley started in the Middle East but was domesticated 10,000 years ago. Fish walked us through barley breeding basics, types of barley, growth habits, and end use. Here’s a cocktail party question: what is the top use of barley? Not feed or food, but malt. He talked about how the industry and research is evolving based on funding and interest – it’s no longer AMBA, AB In-Bev, and GWM driving the train of barley research that fits their brewing needs. They are now also working with a group they call the “Flavor 6-Pack” (didn’t write the craft breweries down) who are helping to fund breeding research that looks at flavor, growth, and malting.

In talking with hop breeders I’ve learned that doing genetic research takes time – these are plants, they grow according to seasons, external conditions have an impact. Grain to glass it takes 11-13 years from the first cross to a reliable new variety. They are now working on rapid response barley breeding with accelerated generation time because they create double haploids and grow the plant from pollen. Yes, this would be a point where there are no follow up questions allowed, but I will remind you again about the OSU Barley Project web site because I’m a librarian and we refer people.

 The next step is to investigate flavor of the grain and flavor after malting. One hitch in their research has been a malt bottleneck because there was nowhere to get a smaller amount malted… Enter pilot malting at the pilot plant!

This is Joe Hortnagi, an Oregon State University mechanical engineering graduate student, who is in charge of fabricating and testing this barley malting machine.

This is Joe Hortnagi, an Oregon State University mechanical engineering graduate student, who is in charge of fabricating and testing this barley malting machine.

The OSU Barley Project worked with Fermentation Science and the engineers at the School of MIME (see above) to solve the problem of how to do malt production at the level of 100-300lbs. They built a mini malter, which frankly sounds adorable, that would live in the pilot plant next to all the brewing equipment. Unfortunately, it was loud and they do a lot of teaching in the pilot plant, so they are renovating a new facility on campus.

Dustin Herb gave a super interesting lecture on flavor and malting. He also included a ton of great slides that looked ridiculous when I tried to take pictures of them. Here’s one that’s okay, and I don’t think it’s actually about barley (hop flavor wheel, if memory serves).

He talked about how useful brewers it could be for brewers to have a malt quality spec sheet that broke down the characteristics/chemicals and showed how they could be good predictors of malting performance. Enter “The Flavor Project.” It starts with the premises that we know barley (pre-malting) has flavor, but we might not be able to taste the full range and that we aren’t on solid ground about how that flavor is changed by malting. It also starts with the acknowledgement that an industry funded by people making yellow beer might have driven a selection against flavor. Their end goal is to define all flavor varieties using sensory and chemical analysis, and then breed new varieties based on what they learn. This allows them to ask questions about the impact of location and growing conditions (terroir), which has become fascinating to me in the last three days as I think about hop growing in Central Oregon…

What have they found? It looks like there is no perceivable flavor difference between the varieties Full Pint, Klages, and AC Metcalfe, but there were sensory differences based on the location the barley was grown and differences between the chemical compounds in the varieties. They are in the midst of genetically mapping for flavor compounds, which asks them to “nano malt” and brew one bottle at a time! Their goal is to map the genes controlling flavor in barley as well as malting quality – they want to be able to select for flavor at a genetic level.

In addition to this lab research, they have also read up on market research, looking at trends in purchases of barley bred for growing in England and Scotland, but also considering what an “Oregon brand” might be (this is where terroir meets marketing). At this larger level they are interested in building an Oregon Label and promoting the Full Pint legacy. Possibilities in this include regionalized taste, local growing and production, and personalized barley for individual breweries.

Following that same local vein, the final speaker was Seth Klann, a 7th generation farmer who runs Mecca Grade Estate Malt.

He started out the talk with this story of his family (which I loved), who were Quakers in North Carolina. They were abolitionists as well, and this didn’t mesh well with many of their slave holding neighbors. So they moved to Iowa, where they established an orchard and a stop on the Underground Railroad. Henderson Luelling, the great + grandfather of Seth, moved the family and all his fruit seeds to Oregon via the Oregon Trail. He’s credited with helping to start the wonderful orchard industry we have today.

They were homesteaders, settling in Madras as dry land farmers. Seth (a different one) was a grain freighter as well as a farmer because it was hard work and they needed additional income. Most of those original families are gone, but Seth (the one I heard talk) is understandably proud of the depth of his family history in the region. One nod to the past is in their logo, which was inspired by a picture of his grandfather hauling grain down Mecca Grade.

Now that we have the ability to irrigate the going isn’t quite as rough, which is great because the region is excellent for growing barley! There is a level of reproductive stress for the plants because of the cold nights and hot days, so the kernels are robust, but the dry weather also means that the grain is nearly dry when it comes off the fields (unlike the Valley where most of the time we have moss growing on us). They only grow Full Pint, which is a is a 2-row, spring malting barley developed by Oregon State University’s Barley Breeding Program that has a unique and rich flavor profile that will elevate any craft beer or spirit to the next level of quality. Spring 2-row barley malt is the preferred choice of brewers because of its superior performance.

He talked a bit about Central Oregon malt terroir and how locally sourced ingredients could create a regionalized drinking area. Aside from a couple of breweries, no one is really brewing with Full Pint yet, but there are some that are pretty excited to try, especially those who are passionate about using local ingredients (e.g. Paul from The Ale Apothecary who brews in the historic way). But in this case it’s not just about growing the ingredients, but malting them here too!

One sentence background: malting breaks down the hard starchy interior of a barley grain so you get something that it crunchy. Growing barley isn’t that unique in Oregon, but malting it on site is. They’ve installed a brand new system, with fancy computerized controls, to do small(er) batch specialized/personalized malting in their estate malt house.

So yes, the brewer can have custom malt, but also have information about longitude and latitude on the label – which has a great marketing potential! But this also has great research potential for those at OSU. For both hops and barley they can look at how to breed varieties that grow best in Central Oregon and all the distinct regions of the state. This allows for more efficient and sustainable farming, but also products that really do reflect the local flavor (terroir again?) of the region.

I happen to think it’s pretty cool that I work at a school that does all this work to make the beer you drink taste so great!