By Emily Hutto, RadCraft

New York state is an established hub for agriculture with business licensing in place that supports farm breweries and distilleries that source New York-grown ingredients for their beers and spirits. Now in credit to the work that the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is doing in collaboration with agronomists, plant pathologists, scientific and governmental organizations, growers, and producers in the Northeast and beyond, New York is gaining recognition as a polestar for small grains research and development. 

“The big challenge [when we got started] was that most of the malting barley varieties available were ones that were developed and selected for use in more Western states and Canada, places that tend to have less rainfall and humidity than we have here in New York,” says Gary Bergstrom, a Professor of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology in the Cornell School of Integrative Plant Science. “In 2014 we received funding for a barley development program. The central story here is Mark Sorrells’ story about developing new varieties.” 

Mark Sorrells, Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics

Sorrells studied corn breeding and genetics for his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin before joining Cornell in 1978. To date, he leads the university’s small grains breeding and genetics program as a Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics, which develops new varieties of small grains and conducts translational research relevant to improving them.  

Under the direction of Sorrells and Daniel Sweeney, these researchers launched a barley project with spring varieties. “And in record time, over the course of six years (most barley varieties take eight to ten years to develop), using the technologies, genomic selection, they were able to develop the variety, Excelsior Gold,” says Karl Kunze, a Ph.D. student in the Cornell small grains breeding program advised by Dr. Mark Sorrells. This variety is named for New York state’s motto, “Excelsior” (Latin for ‘ever upward’), and Gold, for its association with value and intrinsic beauty.

Karl Kunze, Ph.D. Candidate in the Cornell small grains breeding program

Like many barley research programs that we’ve covered in this Field To Bench series, spring barley was a gateway to winter crops at Cornell where Kunze has focused on winter barley for six years now. “Winter malting barley tends to escape some of the problems that affect spring malting varieties,” Kunze says. “There tends to be a little bit more dormancy in winter crops, which is something we want because we want sprouting resistance.” 

New York’s longitude and latitude give Cornell researchers a unique advantage that breeders in other regions and climates don’t have. “We grow a combination of winter and spring grains here. To the south of us there’s really no interest in the spring barley,” says Bergstrom. “Of course up into Canada, it’s primarily the spring barley that takes the stage. So we’re in a transition zone, and each season of barley has a certain niche in agriculture here.” 

“Because our growing conditions are more humid and wet than traditional growing regions in the western US and Canada, malting barley is more prone to diseases and preharvest sprouting,” Sorrells adds. 

Knowledge of what’s happening in barley breeding across the country is a reflection of the engaged collaboration that these researchers are doing with many of our other Field to Bench interviewees, and beyond.

“Thanks to generous funding from New York Ag & Markets and other sources, we have been able to work with Cornell Cooperative Extension to educate farmers and carry out the necessary research to make it possible to produce malting barley in the northeastern U.S., in spite of the challenging climate,” says Sorrells. 

“We have collaborated with barley breeders, like Pat Hayes at Oregon State University, who has been doing barley breeding for decades. They’ve helped us by using a technology called double haploidization, which reduces our timeline by about a year to get the varieties developed more quickly,” Kunze adds. Additionally, Hayes and Sorrells recently co-released a facultative barley line called Lightning that has grown well in both Oregon and New York. We’ve had some farmers and maltsters try it out this past year and so far it worked out great,” he says.

Gary Bergstrom, Professor of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology

Also among Cornell’s partners are the USDA Cereal Crops Research Unit, the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative, the Northeast Grainshed Alliance, North Dakota State University, the University of Minnesota Kevin P. Smith Lab, and Michigan State University, to name a few. “We’re all interdependent; it’s clear that we work on the shoulders of others and hopefully we contribute some as well as take some,” says Bergstrom. He and Kunze additionally stress the importance of their farming, malting, brewing, and distilling partners who provide data and feedback on the practical application of their research. 

Hudson Valley Malt in Germantown, NY is one of them. This maltster serves as a liaison between the breeding program and the end products that fulfill the consumer desire for locally made beers and spirits, which these Cornell professionals say both differentiates and drives demand for their program. “We have a savvy audience for that value chain,” says Bergstrom. “They’re very interested in the narrative of how their food is grown, how it’s processed, how it’s delivered.” 

Kunze agrees. “Our small grains development is happening on a smaller scale than some other programs; We’re not going to have the volume to scale, but we’re going to have a resilient agricultural system supported by consumers. I think that’s really kind of the big strength of this program in New York.” 

Sorrells agrees, too. There is a great deal of interest by consumers for locally produced food and beverage, he says. Consumer excitement around locally made beers and spirits are what these Cornell researchers all say ignites their passion for their work. 

“We’ve gotten to know a lot of brewers and distillers, all of whom are really excited about New York grains and New York malts. It’s special to taste beers made with Excelsior Gold, made through this supply chain,” says Bergstrom. “It’s been the capstone of our careers to work on something so meaningful and so local.”

Catch Sorrells and learn more about Cornell’s research at the 2023 Craft Malt Conference seminar Breeding Malting Barley Varieties for Non-Traditional Growing Regions: Challenges and Opportunities. Register here.

Feature image via Cornell Chronicle courtesy Jeremy Veverka/Cornell Cooperative Extension