By Emily Hutto, Photos courtesy HudsonAlpha Institute for Technology
Jeremy Schmutz is vacationing in England sipping on a Barsham Brewery Golden Clues IPA made with Bodicea hops and local Maris Otter barley. Schmutz is the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology Faculty Investigator and co-director of the HudsonAlpha Genome Sequencing Center, one of the only centers performing original sequencing of plants in the world.
Schmutz and his colleagues HudsonAlpha Faculty Investigators Josh Clevenger, PhD and Alex Harkess, PhD, and Field Crop Trial Manager Kaitlyn Williams— who are all home in Alabama— have joined forces on an intercontinental Zoom chat to share their work for this installation of Field To Bench. These researchers at HudsonAlpha’s Center for Plant Science and Sustainable Agriculture are writing a new chapter in the North American small grains book, where the first few growing seasons of Alabama-grown malting barley are successfully underway.
In 2021, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey awarded HudsonAlpha $968,365 to develop better agriculture seed varieties to produce healthier and more productive crops. They’re doing so in conjunction with Auburn University’s Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences and Entomology and Plant Pathology departments, as well as Alabama A&M’s Winfred Thomas Agricultural Research Station. “The project connects the advanced agronomy crop research at Alabama Land Grant Institutions to the advanced plant genetic and genomic science expertise at HudsonAlpha,” said a press release. “The collaborative team is developing a pilot pipeline to import and test new crop varieties that could be deployed by Alabama farmers.”
Those new crop varieties include the reason you’re all reading: malting barley. Not only are these collaborative entities testing barley as an overwinter crop for spring harvest, they’re also working toward increasing economic awareness of local barley and partnering with end users (some of whom are our malthouse members) to add value to the crops.
Harkess, PhD, is an Auburn University College of Agriculture affiliate faculty member in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences and a HudsonAlpha Faculty Investigator. The first step in this barley research was sourcing it from different universities and breeding programs, including Virginia Tech’s new Avalon varietal that we covered in 2022 as part of the Field To Bench series. They also needed maltster buy-in.
“We sent a cold email to Riverbend Malt House, and myself and two other Auburn professors drove and met with the founders,” Harkess remembers. “They showed us around for about two hours. We sampled malt together and we just talked about this moonshot idea of what if we could grow Alabama barley at large scale? I vividly remember the last thing they said was that they cannot wait for this to work.”
They also needed farmers to cultivate the barley. Among HudsonAlpha’s growing partners are Martin Farms in Courtland, Bevel Farms in Langston, Lazy O Farms in Henagar, and the Alabama A&M Field Station in Hazel Green.
“In 2021 after our first successful harvest, suddenly we had a giant refrigerated room on Auburn University’s campus with all of this barley,” Harkess regales. “And we thought, what are we going to do with all this barley now?”
The answer: make malt.
Flash forward to the 2023 harvest. These farms grew 65,000 pounds of malting barley, including Avalon, Marouetta, Secretariat, and Thoroughbred varietals. “We saw 10 to 12 percent protein,” Williams says about its quality testing data from Hartwick College. “The average yield was around a hundred bushels an acre. When the farms involved didn’t get rained out, we saw an average of 100 to 109 bushels an acre.”
The testing of that quality data was in the realms of what was needed to send to Riverbend and another nearby maltster Old South Malt House. “So three years later I sent a follow-up email to Brian Simpson at Riverbend when he was on his way to the Craft Malt Conference and I said, Brian it worked,” Harkess remembers. “He was just as excited then as he was three years ago.”
Equally excited have been the Auburn University Master of Science in Brewing Operations and Management program that will be integrating some of this barley into their ingredient inventory. The College of Agriculture and Dean Paul Patterson also funded a pilot malting system that will be housed within this brewing program.
“So, not only have we created new opportunities from the industrial side of the industry to create a new market for Alabama-grown barley, but we’ve also created this feedback loop where we’re training the next generation of agriculture professionals,” says Harkess. “It’s an interdisciplinary offering that could be barley production, genomics, breeding, malting sciences, fermentation, brewing and beyond. It helps our students think like agricultural biologists, geneticists, and economists too— along the whole supply chain.”
“Within supply chains, you’re giving me a good opportunity to talk about something I like to talk about a lot: harnessing genomics for accelerating crop improvement” Clevenger chimes in. “For a long time, looking at reading the entire genome, or all the DNA of one individual living organism like a barley varietal, was very expensive. At HudsonAlpha we’ve been developing relationships with and utilizing the expertise of affiliate companies.”
This collaboration, Clevenger explains, gives him and this team the ability to work toward producing complete barley genomes. Schmutz, whose genomics work is considered some of the world’s finest, adds that HudsonAlpha has developed and tested technology to produce a complete barley genome to support barley breeding and beyond. This genome work helps them consider genomic scales.
Examining genomic scales, Clevenger says, builds food integrity. According to Journal Nutraceuticals and Food Science, food integrity is “a concept that encompasses the disciplines of food safety, food fraud prevention and food defense. For some commentators it also includes sustainable and ethical supply chain management.”
“Food integrity is critical for specialized craft malt,” Clevenger says. “If I want to buy Golden Promise malt, for instance, I’m going to pay a lot more for that. I want to make sure that I’m getting what I pay for. We can read the whole genome of an individual varietal at the scales of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. And once we get millions, that’s where we can strip the lab. While we’re not deploying that within this barley project right now– that’s the end goal.”
These plant science and sustainable agriculture experts are cultivating an ecosystem around the small grains movement in Alabama, and it’s gaining both fast and sustainable traction. Their holistic approach to bettering the barley supply chain has immediate impacts in the craft malt community, and their work is poised to create Alabama-based employment and expertise in the beverage industry at large for generations to come. Learn more about it at www.hudsonalpha.org/agriscience.