We launched our Field To Bench series to tell stories about the research fueling the craft malt industry. In 2022, we’re featuring the faces behind some of the world’s leading malt research. Next up is a collection of passionate folks who represent a whole community charging toward the debut of a better-performing barley, cultivated with maltsters in mind.

By Emily Hutto, RadCraft

Scene in, to Virginia Small Grains Field Day at the Eastern Virginia Agricultural Research and Extension Center back in May. It’s a hot, balmy morning in Warsaw, VA where agriculture professionals from across the country have gathered to learn about the program’s latest and walk the lush fields of barley varietals under study. 

It’s a remarkable day for Virginia Tech in many ways. Not only is the university’s Small Grains Breeding and Genetics Program showcasing the newly released Avalon 2-row barley, but also its Senior Research Associate Wynse Brooks’ last Field Day before he retires at the end of this year. “You really can’t tell the story of Avalon without telling the story of Wynse Brooks,” says the program leader Dr. Nicholas Santantonio.

Pictured: Wynse Brooks (left) and Dr. Carl Griffey (right)

Brooks originally left his home in Liberia to study barley breeding at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. His research there included a sojourn to Israel where he collected a wild relative of cultivated barley (Hordeum spontaneum), with resistance to barley leaf rust that he successfully crossbred with Swedish varieties. He arrived at Virginia Tech as a Ph.D. student in 1993 to study under Dr. Carl Griffey; and while he never did finish his degree, he didn’t leave either. 

Santantonio, who took over the program when Griffey retired in 2020, says “Wynse decided he’d rather focus on barley breeding. As such, he worked on the development of feed barley adapted to the Eastern US, and has been here ever since.” 

Brooks was able to apply his resistance research when a rust epidemic hit Southeastern crops in the 1990s. “One of the outcomes was Thoroughbred 6-row barley, developed as a cross between a feed barley and a French variety called Plaisant,” Santantonio explains. Turns out, it was viable for malt production. 

One of the early adopters of this Thoroughbred barley was Billy Dawson— often thought of as the Father of Malted Barley in Virginia. Twenty-five miles east of Virginia Tech’s test plots, he’s been growing heritage grains and milling them for local beer and spirits production since 2006. 

“This discovery that Thoroughbred could make reasonable malt led to the question, Can the Eastern US actually support a malt supply chain?” Santantonio continues. “Carl led the charge in deciding to develop a malt program, and Wynse took the lead in building that malt program from scratch. That was in 2010.”

Enter the craft maltsters who began sprouting up all over the Southeast, creating a demand for 2-row barley that would hit spec for the country’s rapidly expanding brewing and distilling scenes– further substantiating this time-consuming research.

“The breeding cycle is really long,” says Santantonio. “You start out with these original crosses of hulled feed type barleys adapted in the Eastern US crossed with European and Western US malt varieties, you make these F1 hybrids that then produce populations that need to inbreed in the field for several years. We pick individual heads out of those populations; they get planted in head rows that will breed true to their distinct type because they’re mostly inbred. We plant around 10,000 genetically distinct inbred lines in individual headrows and select lines based on height, maturity, and disease resistance. Those then go into early-generation yield trials, which if they do well then need to go into late-stage trialing with more replications, and more locations. We send them off to other collaborative nurseries with other researchers, and eventually, we find one and say yep, that’s a good one. We do head row purification to produce breeder seed, and then that breeder seed gets sent to the Virginia Crop Improvement Association which produces the foundation seed. This is about a ten to twelve-year process.” 

Jeff Bloem, the founder of Virginia’s first craft malthouse Murphy & Rude Malting Co. has been among those patiently awaiting the results of this process. He started attending the Small Grains Field Day in 2013 as a method to connect with and recruit the best growers in the Commonwealth. “The fact that we now have a 2-row malting barley variety specifically bred for Virginia’s climate, well inside of ten years, is astounding,” he says.  “The progress is incredible and is a testament not only to Virginia Tech’s focus in this area, but their work on the advancement of double-haploid breeding technology to speed up the delivery of new lines with attention to a broad spectrum of needs, including disease resistance, test weight, protein, and beta-glucan levels, and yield.” 

Bloem credits Virginia Tech’s Small Grain Breeding Program and its focus on vetting malting-quality small grain varieties as a critical component to opening Murphy & Rude Malting.  “Sound agronomics is central to the success of any commercial malting operation and their work provides the variety analysis, harvest data, and small-scale laboratory malting results we need to make key decisions every year. From providing management insights and advice to our growers to identifying promising new barley varieties in-tin with our varied micro-climates to identifying specific wheat varieties that further connect Murphy & Rude to Virginia’s storied agricultural history, they are key to our continued success as a reputable, high-quality malt provider.” 

Beyond this direct application of their research, Bloem values the relationships that have come out of these shared objectives. “My participation has bloomed into close, one-on-one relationships with their staff.” 

“Over the years.” Brooks chimes in, “I’ve learned to listen to the farmers, the craft maltsters, the producers. You tell us what you want, and we produce it. Our collaboration produces better barley.” 

Brent Manning of Riverbend Malt House echoes that sentiment. “We got a chance to do pilot runs a couple of years back when Avalon was still a serial number. We were so excited to be involvedhe remembers. “We did hot steeps and found distinct flavor differences. It performed above our expectations— with high extract, low protein, and low betas, putting us on par with the best-of from traditional barley-growing regions. Flash forward to this moment when Avalon hits the streets – we’ve got high-quality malt that matches and exceeds world-class specs, with a compelling origin story.”  

At the kernel of that story is the new variety’s name, Avalon. It’s the name of the street that Billy Dawson lived on at his 6th generation farm, where his family will harvest the varietal for the first time this year. 

Another brewery turned small-scale, estate producer who just harvested Avalon is the Craft Malt Certified Wheatland Spring Farm + Brewery in Waterford, Virginia. Their on-farm trial— 24 plots of 12 different experimental barley breeding lines — intends to test this barley under real-world conditions. “We’ll grow the grain Virginia Tech is studying, Murphy & Rude will malt it, we’ll brew with the malted barley, and then we’ll all evaluate the beer. By growing and brewing with the grain ourselves, we’re dramatically shrinking the time it takes to go from studying experimental grain to serving beer made from that grain,” the brewery website says. 

In 2020, Avalon became the first publicly released winter malt barley specifically bred for the Eastern US.

Undoubtedly, Virginia Tech’s Small Grains Breeding and Genetics program has had an immeasurable impact on the Mid-Atlantic’s craft malt supply chain as it continues to unfold. Looking forward, this team is focused on mitigating process issues related to their biggest obstacle: time. 

“We harvest in June, then we make those decisions, and then the seed goes back in the ground in October,” says Brooks. “It’s really difficult for us to get the data that we need about malt quality in that time. Usually, we have to push quality decisions into the next growing season.” 

To combat this speed bump, graduate student Amelia Loeb is collecting data via drone. Her project uses aerial imaging to predict malting quality, integrating genomic data, lab-quality data, and the aerial phenotypes that she gets from the images that the drone takes of the plots. “The end goal for the Small Grains Lab is to be able to predict the malt quality of the varieties we release in a quicker time,” she says, “so that better varieties can get to growers, and then maltsters, and then brewers— so that we can have better grain.”

Loeb’s research will be published in 2023. You can learn more about her project, and Virginia Tech’s Small Grains program here