By Emily Hutto, RadCraft

Our 2022 Field To Bench series has illuminated the collaboration required to execute barley research that yields useful results for producers, and our Q4 spotlight on Michigan State University (MSU) is no exception. 

Brook Wilke

MSU is actively researching winter malting barley, and other grains like corn, oats, and rye, in the context of brewing and distilling, among many other agricultural studies. “Our broad interests stem from agro-ecology questions, around how ecosystems work in relation to farming systems. We aim to develop applied tools to improve farming systems for the better of the environment while still supporting yield and profit,” says Brook Wilke, Associate Director for Science and Agronomy at the university’s Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) in Hickory Corners, Michigan. “We are good at growing corn and soybeans across the Midwest, but our ag systems perform better when we integrate winter annuals like barley and wheat, both of which grow well across Southern Michigan. Markets for winter malting barley in the U.S. are still in developmental stages, but droughts, pre-harvest sprout, and competition from other crops are all affecting spring barley production, which is starting to open up interest and demand for winter barley.” 

MSU added winter barley to its research and education program in 2017, and these researchers haven’t looked back. 

James DeDecker

“Winter barley is a natural fit for Michigan because winter wheat is very common; If people are growing small grains that’s generally the one,” says James D. DeDecker, Director of MSU’s Upper Peninsula Research & Extension Center (UPREC) in Chatham, Michigan. 

Wilke chimes in again. “It’s been surprisingly successful. Not once have we had winter survival issues at KBS and most years we achieve American Malting Barley Association (AMBA) quality standards with the majority of the varieties. Learning that we can grow winter barley that archives high yields, meets standards, and provides double cropping opportunities and thus high-profit potential for farmers is super exciting.”

Winter barley doesn’t come without its challenges, though. “It’s apparent that winter is a complex phenomenon,” DeDecker explains. “We face the multifaceted challenge of winter hardiness in barley. Beyond cold, you have desiccation and anoxic environments from ice cover— all these aspects that challenge the crop in unique ways. No one variety will stand up well to all of those things. We and other folks like Kevin Smith at the University of Minnesota are looking at how varieties differ in stem and leaf architecture, crown height, xylem diameter (how skinny or wide plant vascular tissues are), antioxidative enzyme activity, DNA repair, and other factors that might influence winter hardiness.” 

Despite challenges, diversifying with winter barley has the potential to “help with the resilience of the industry and the resilience of individual farmers looking to achieve a profitable, sustainable system,” Wilke beams. 

Christian Kapp

Data supporting this resilience is made possible by MSU’s Quality Labs, located at UPREC and on campus in East Lansing, which takes in samples and analyzes them for quality. This lab tests private and commercial grains for crude protein, germination, assortment, pre-harvest sprout, and mycotoxins. Christian Kapp, a research technician who heads the lab at UPREC, says, “our program now encompasses all parts of the barley world – spring and winter – and beyond to other small grains like rye and oats. We have a good core group of at least ten growers across the state who work closely with maltsters and university professionals. The level of collaboration and open sourcing amongst small grain researchers, maltsters, and growers both in and outside the state is quite unique and refreshing.” 

Dr. Nicole Shriner

Kapp makes a point to highlight the final piece of MSU’s puzzle for supporting the beverage industry with the best quality grains: the work of Teaching Specialist, Master Brewer, and winning Moonshiners: Master Distiller (yes, you read that right- check out season 3, episode 8) Dr. Nicole Shriner who directs MSU’s Fermented Beverage Lab and fermentation studies program. She’s working with professional brewing distilling collaborators like Bell’s Brewery, Mammoth Distilling, Ethanology, and Valentine Distilling to generate and analyze data that supports the best possible performance of small grains in processing. “There’s a disparity between the data that can and should be collected in commercial breweries and distilleries based on scale and the cost of equipment,” she posits. “I’m trying to bridge that gap for producers in Michigan. It’s a good use of our equipment to better the industry.” 

Perhaps the only barley research program on the continent without its own breeding program, MSU researchers rely upon many scientific, funding, and industry collaborators to do their work. This network includes farmers and producers, as well as leaders of regional variety trial networks across the country such as the University of Minnesota, North Dakota State University, and Virginia Tech; as well as funding partners that include AMBA, the Michigan Craft Beverage Council, the Michigan Crop Improvement Association, the Michigan Brewers Guild, Bell’s Brewery, Origin Malt, and the Michigan Department of Agriculture Rural Development, among others. “We owe these leaders a lot of credit for making it possible for us to do barley research,” Wilke says.

“It’s unique that we’re doing this work without a breeding program. We’re totally indebted to those other states and institutions,” adds DeDecker. 

Ultimately, the fermented beverage industry is indebted to Michigan State for this profound research too. These professionals aren’t just shedding light on the viability of winter barley, they’re also highlighting Michigan as a major player in the broader small grains industry. 

Beyond barley, MSU researchers are also making headway in rye production. They have found that rye can come with tradeoffs between agronomic performance and flavor. High yields of starchy grains can dilute important flavor compounds of interest to brewers and distillers. “We find ourselves asking ‘Who’s the customer and what do they value?’ AC Hazlet [a fall rye variety originally developed in Canada] is high in 4-VG, which lends spicy flavor notes, and is also a good yielder. The industry is starting to recognize this variety, and we’re thrilled to be able to scale that up. DeDecker says. You can read more about MSU’s rye variety trials and results in this report

Michigan additionally deserves credit for new legislation that supports state-grown grains in its beverages. Enacted earlier this year, House Bill 4842 assists Michigan’s craft distilling industry by lowering the tax rate on spirits derived from at least 40 percent Michigan-grown ingredients (grain or otherwise), and increasing the number of bottles distillers can produce while saving them and their customers money. “House Bill 4842 represents an opportunity for Michigan to become one of the leading states in the country in support of the growing craft distilling industry,” said Jon O’Connor, President of the Michigan Craft Distillers Association, in a press release

In their continued efforts to serve as liaisons between growers and processors, MSU will once again partner with the Michigan Brewers Guild to host the third annual Michigan Great Beer State Conference on January 11-13, 2023 in Kalamazoo, MI. This event offers educational sessions and a trade show targeting barley and hops growers, maltsters, and brewers. This winter there is a special focus on conveying the value of locally grown and processed beer ingredients. Find details about the conference and register here

“If there’s one key thing that makes Michigan special and drives the team’s beverage research, it’s our apparent climate resilience,” DeDecker concludes. “Whether you’re talking about diversifying sourcing of barley and other grains for beverages and looking to places in the Great Lakes Region, or identifying in the state where we can grow spring and winter varieties and diversifying to deal with climate risk— it brings all the work we’re doing together. Hopefully, climate change can create opportunities in Michigan where it’s creating challenges elsewhere. I think about the droughts in the West. Maybe Michigan deserves a second look in terms of small grains.” 

Learn more about MSU’s grain research and application on the UPREC and KBS websites.