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ARS Lab Evaluates Malted Barley

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Two scientists looking at barley plants in a greenhouse

ARS plant biologist Leslie Zalapa, left, and geneticist Jason Walling, right, examine barley grown in a greenhouse at the ARS Cereal Crops Research Lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Lauri Herrin (D3986-1)

The packages arrive throughout the year, weighing just under a pound, and their contents are always the same: seeds fresh from a field, ready for germination.

Most of the barley seeds shipped to the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Cereal Crops Research Unit, in Madison, Wisconsin, are lines of barley that have already demonstrated the right mix of desirable agronomic traits in years of field trials—high yields, disease resistance, adequate seed production, and other qualities. But the lines arriving at this one-of-a-kind laboratory will undergo an entirely different battery of scientific tests—to determine if they can perform as malting barley and, ultimately, make it into a glass of beer.

Each year, ARS researchers evaluate about 6,000 samples of malting barley at what is the only federal lab in the country that evaluates barley’s malt qualities for university and ARS breeders. Another 100 samples are sent by the American Malting Barley Association, Inc. (AMBA), a trade group dedicated to ensuring an adequate supply of malting barley for brewers, malting houses, distilleries, food companies, and other operations.

“There are other malt quality laboratories throughout the United States, some at universities. But we are currently the only facility in the United States, mandated by the U.S. Congress, that provides this type of service to the nation’s agricultural experiment stations,” says Jason Walling, an ARS researcher who also studies the genetics of malting barley. Key customers include plant breeders at state universities in the barley-producing states of Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, and Washington.

Two hands holding barley, which has been partially malted, with rootlets still attached

Barley in the process of being malted with rootlets still attached. The ARS Cereal Crops Research Lab in Madison, Wisconsin, is the only federally funded lab in the country that evaluates barley’s malt qualities for university breeders and for the malting and brewing industries. Lauri Herrin (D3987-1)

The work by Walling and the lab’s technical staff is important because malting barley is a gamble for a grower. If the crop doesn’t turn out well, the grower will have to sell it as animal feed at a lower price, sometimes for as little as half the price of malting barley. Corn, soybeans, and wheat attract considerably more private research investment than barley, and the work in Madison ensures that malting barley stays competitive with those crops as an option for growers, says Michael P. Davis, AMBA’s president.

“The work done in Madison is critical to us,” he says.

The results are returned to the researchers and are available to the public. AMBA distributes them to its brewers and maltsters so they can make collaborative decisions about which lines are worth further evaluations as a step toward being released as commercial varieties. Only the best will be released for use in beers and other malt products. Malting houses will often sign contracts with growers specifying the types of barley they want produced.

The researchers evaluate the lines for qualities that affect the brewing process, such as the levels of enzymes that convert starch into sugar, protein content (crucial for stability), free amino nitrogen (important for yeast nutrition during fermentation), and beta-glucan content (which can cause filtration problems for brewers if levels are too high).

They generally test 36 samples in a day and provide two overall quality scores: one for major commercial brewers who use malt for adjunct lagers (which add rice, corn, or other ingredients to the malt) and another for craft brewers who typically brew all-malt beers.—Dennis O’Brien, ARS Office of Communications.

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