Our Field to Bench series is back in 2022, featuring the faces behind some of the world’s leading malt research. First up is Glen Fox, the Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis).
UC Davis is home to the oldest university-based brewing program in the United States where Fox is the third professor of brewing science after two others. His background in a nutshell: As an undergraduate in Australia, he tested barley for the department of Agriculture while he studied biochemistry and genetics before going on to get a Ph.D. and notoriety in barley quality, with post-doctorate work in South Africa where he explored brewing through the lens of malt quality. “I bring a cultural and international perspective,” he says about his role at the university.
Fox’s current research focus is on starch structure, and how it impacts wort and beer quality. He jokes that as an industry, we’ve been complaining since the 1900s that malt analysis doesn’t tell producers entirely how that malt will perform, “but it’s still the best we’ve got.”
Fox and his team at UC Davis are making improvements on the best information available, on the daily. “Currently, the project I am working on involves assessing the effect of environment and genotype on malt quality,” says Maany Ramanan, UC Davis doctoral candidate, and a 2022 Craft Malt Con Online Scholarship recipient. “If I can get one clear outcome from this research, it would be to predict how a malt certificate of analysis (COA) is going to change from today to say, 10 years from now. If we could accomplish that, wouldn’t that be something!”
Students in the UC Davis Brewing Program are also working on projects examining Kernza®, a climate-positive perennial wheatgrass that can be used as a whole grain showing potential in malting and brewing, and a project with the University of Nevada, Reno investigating improving the malting potential of sorghum. Another student has developed a high throughput method to measure beta-glucanase in malt and wort.
For Fox and his students, their work is intended to affect change in the future by looking to tradition. “A lot of countries have had long agricultural histories long before the white man turned up,” he says. “We’ve forgotten about those first custodians of the land in a lot of places, but most farmers are trying to do the right thing because they are here for a short period. We need to look back at how Indigenous people handled climate change.”
At the heart of Fox’s program, there’s a turning inward, a focus on local, and a recognition of what and who once was there to move forward sustainably. “Our ancestors managed resources very well; they made fermented beverages from what was local— [not from commodity malt].” With this mindfulness comes flavor. “Bulk malting has so much sourcing to do that a lot of the potential unique character is diluted and lost,” he adds.
Ramanan says Dr. Fox has challenged her to think outside the box when it comes to malt quality and to connect the learnings from agronomy into food chemistry to assess barley quality more effectively. “His focus on multi-disciplinary approaches to dealing with climate change and his refreshing perspectives about the importance of raw materials in brewing are two main reasons why I moved halfway across the world to pursue my doctoral studies at UC Davis.”
Fox also moved halfway across the globe for this work in the pursuit of higher quality malt, which for him means higher quality living. “What if I’d said no to that work in South Africa?” he asks rhetorically. “I might be stuck in a government job that wasn’t opening my eyes to a bigger world, not just on a professional level but on a cultural level. When opportunities come, take them for your longer purpose.”