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Klamath plantings seek robust barley malts for beer

Issue Date: September 22, 2021
By Kathy Coatney
Grower Ed Rose stands in a field of lightning barley malt in the Klamath Basin, where researchers are studying varieties that can adapt to climate change and produce rich flavors for brewers.
Photo/Patrick Hayes

Patrick Hayes oversees barley research plantings for craft and mainstream brewers, as America's beer market inspires new interest in growing barley in California and beyond.

"There's an uptick in barley acres, there's an uptick in malt usage, and that is driven by the craft industry because they are largely using the malts," said Hayes, a professor of crop and soil science at Oregon State University.

The growth of the craft industry has stimulated interest in barley production from the West Coast to as far as away as Ohio and Michigan, places that aren't normally thought of as barley production areas, Hayes said.

Hayes has been studying new barley varieties that can adapt to climate change and potentially benefit major brewers, craft producers and malting companies.

"In our malting efforts, we try to develop varieties that would be of interest to the craft industry and would also be of interest to the mainstream industry," Hayes said. "We try to move those findings as quickly as possible into our variety development pipeline."

Hayes has tested winter and facultative barley varieties with Admiral Maltings in Alameda County and was preparing to do a spring barley project on the California side of the Klamath Basin until that one was scrapped due to a lack of water for irrigation.

The Klamath Basin has historically been the single largest production area for malting barley because of its warm, dry conditions during the day and cool nights. This makes it an ideal climate for growing barley. It also has a rotation of onions and potatoes as high value crops—and barley fits into that as a rotation, Hayes said.

"It's just a good place to raise barley; it consistently provides good crops," Hayes said. "Farmers saw it as a valuable piece of their rotations. And the local storage infrastructure existed."

But this year has been challenging, with drought conditions making raising barley in the Klamath Basin very complicated. Water shortages are threatening supply chains and livelihoods, Hayes said. Increasingly, his research reflects drought challenges and finding alternatives.

Under extreme drought conditions, varieties that are typically used for malt will not provide grain with good malting quality, he said.

But rather than looking at drought-resistant varieties, Hayes is taking an indirect route to use efficiency by focusing on fall- planted barleys. The fall-planted barleys have advantages. They mature earlier, require less irrigation and are more water efficient because of their growth habits.

"They'll also produce their grain and their crop before the periods of really intense stress kick in," Hayes said, adding it's similar to how winter wheat is grown in California.

Hayes' research, in three study areas, is funded by the American Malting Barley Association. The organization's members include craft and mainstream brewers.

Hayes is studying barley varieties to make them resistant to disease and stress, while achieving high malting quality and rich tastes. But, he said, "The definition of malting quality is very much in the eye of the beholder."

That's because craft and mainstream beer makers don't agree on everything. The reason for their differences is that most craft brewers are using whole barley malt in their beers and much of the mainstream industry is using adjuncts such as corn or rice, Hayes explained.

In his research on barley flavors, Hayes said, "We've been systematically working through this to document that, yes indeed, specific varieties of barley can provide specific flavors to beer." He said the specific geography where barley is grown may also add uniqueness to those flavors.

In focusing on fall plantings, Hayes is researching barley that puts out root systems in autumn, then grows very slowly over the winter—using precipitation in the form of rain or snow. Once spring arrives, it hits its growth spurt before spring barley is even planted.

One class of barley—facultative barley—can be planted in the fall and has enough cold tolerance to survive the winter. It also can be planted in the spring, Hayes said.

"One of the things that we really work on is trying to understand the genetics of this facultative growth habits, so that we can provide our farmers and industries with the greatest flexibility possible," Hayes said.

The Klamath Basin has outstanding local grain storage and excellent rail connections to the Great Western Malting facility in Vancouver, Washington, Hayes said.

But barley competes with other, higher- value crops, and finding a market can also be difficult. Hayes said barley growers need to establish to whom they're selling.

Those clients could be major West Coast players, such as Admiral Malting in California or a trio of companies in the Pacific Northwest—Great Western Malting, Skagit Valley Malting and LINC Malt. Or they could be up-and-coming ventures.

"There are a handful of other smaller malt operations, but growers need to have that local connection established or build their own malt facility," Hayes said, adding they would also need to have breweries that are interested in purchasing their barley.

Hayes said he and his team are happy to share expertise. He may be reached at 541-737-5878 or Patrick.M.Hayes@oregonstate.edu.

(Kathy Coatney is a reporter in Bend, Oregon. She may be contacted at kacoatney@gmail.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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