By Emily Hutto, RadCraft

The 2022 installments of the Field To Bench series tell stories about some of the world’s leading malt research. Next up is Oregon State University. 

The barley researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) have always found themselves on the cusp of something big in the craft malt world. Today, it’s GN 0 varieties. Glycosidic Nitriles, called GNs for short, are organic compounds produced by some barley varieties when they are malted. They can produce significant levels of ethyl carbamates, potent carcinogens, in the distilling process. As a consequence, non-GN varieties are required, by law, for the production of Scotch whisky and are preferred by distillers for alcohol production, in general. 

The researchers leading this effort are Dr. Patrick Hayes, Professor, and Scott Fisk, Senior Faculty Research Assistant at the OSU Barley Project in the Department of Crop and Soil Science. Hayes and Fisk are proud to contribute to research around eliminating GNs in the form of two experimental varieties: DH162310 and DH170472. Both of these doubled haploids (hence the DH in the nomenclature) trace to the cross of DH130939/Calypso. DH130939 was the donor of the 0 GN trait, which in turn inherited the trait from the variety Full Pint. 

Pat Hayes

“There’s a lot of gratification in thinking back,” says Hayes. “There are no other winter barley GN 0 varieties out there that we know of, although there are rumors that we are tracking down.” 

Currently in OSU’s seed inventory are two GN 0 two-row spring varieties, Oregon Promise and Full Pint. Both of these varieties came out of the OSU Barley Project.  Their 0 GN status has been confirmed in tests in collaboration with the Hartwick College Center for Craft Food and Beverage. The team’s current plan is to proceed with on-farm trials of the selections in cooperation with Great Western Malting and Skagit Valley Malting. The 0 GN status is confirmed – what is now needed are data on commercial scale agronomics, malting quality, and distilling metrics.

Eliminating GNs is just one objective of the barley research taking place at Oregon State, whose work in the application of local agriculture to the craft brewing and distilling industries is robust and time-honored. The university’s breeding program has included several new varieties, a couple of which have been game-changers for beverage producers. 

Scott Fisk

Enter the Thunder barley variety, released in 2019. In collaboration with Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, a plot of land on the John Day River that the Western Rivers Conservancy manages as farmland was dedicated to growing this winter two-row. “This variety fits a standard malting regime, with its high enzymes, high FANs, and so forth,” says Hayes. While Great Western Malting malts much of the Thunder grown in Southern Idaho for Anheuser Busch, “if the crop is segregated then it can fit into a craft profile and it’s a variety available to anyone with a non-exclusive license – so there’s no reason a grower and a craft maltster can’t partner up and grow this barley as well,” he adds. The notoriety of this two-row winter barley that comes from a macro brewery’s success coupled with the rise of winter two-row varietals on a national scale is creating much interest in the crop, Fisk adds. “People have seen our success with this winter barley; it seems like we’re making people very curious.”

Another varietal sparking curiosity among the small grains community is Thunder’s younger sibling released in 2020: Lightning. “You get the climate change theme here,” Hayes says. “Lightning is the first facultative malting barley we know with better disease resistance than Thunder.” Lightning is in the American Malting Barley Association’s pilot testing program, started in 2020, and in the variety’s second year it’s shown issues with grain dormancy, “which can be a plus because it’s resistant to pre-harvest sprouting,” Hayes adds. “Scott’s done a phenomenal job tackling water sensitivity to make really nice malt out of Lightning,” which these researchers have identified will be more responsive in the malthouse if adjustments are made for water sensitivity.

Lightning’s success in trials translated into more farmland on the Western Rivers Conservancy land dedicated to the crop. Lightning is eliciting further interest for 2022 fall planting: following a successful seed multiplication in upstate New York, and interest from Skagit Valley Malting and Mainstem Malt, both in Washington state. Among the producers experimenting with Lightning is LINC Malt in Spokane Valley, WA which used it to produce malt for Big Wild Spirits, a distillery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. 

Like many programs contributing research and breeding to the craft malt industry, Oregon State University’s Barley Project is committed to producing seed that improves efficiency for the end user. Bend, Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery is one of the more involved of these end users. “Deschutes has been a phenomenal partner, looking at the contributions of barley to beer flavor with their pilot system, and much of that research funded by the Brewers Association,” Hayes explains.  

“Field visits matter,” Hayes continues, stressing the significance of connecting directly with the people and processes that will be most impacted by the malt in question. “It’s exciting to get out there and show users the exciting crops that have hope to develop as varieties contributing to beer.” 

Learn more about the OSU Barley Project and meet the researchers here