Montana is one of the biggest malt barley producers in the nation. Most of the grain goes to Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, but that’s starting to shift as more microbreweries seek out local ingredients for a sense of place and unique flavors. Researchers breeding barley for the craft beer boom will be speaking with brewers at a conference in Missoula this week.
At MSU’s Post Agronomy Farm in Bozeman, graduate students pass bundles of barley up to someone standing on a thresher. She feeds the bundles through the top of the machine to separate the grain.
Today’s harvest is part of a process that can take a decade or more to develop new, improved barley varieties. Jamie Sherman is the director of MSU’s Barley Breeding Program.
“So why do we do it? We want to improve yield. We want to improve disease-resistance. We want to improve drought tolerance. But then we also want it to be end-user specific. We want to improve food quality, increase nutrition, make it better for the organic market,” Sherman says.
And she says, she does it for Montana’s growing craft beer industry. The Big Sky state has the second highest number of microbreweries per capita in the U.S.
In 2008, there were around 20 microbreweries in the state. Now, a decade later, there are over 80. The industry generates more than $440 million annually.
Sherman says a lot of craft brews are made with heirloom barley varieties from Europe, which offer a wider array of unique flavor profiles. Unfortunately, they don’t grow very well in Montana’s climate. So Sherman and her team are trying to create new varieties that combine the flavors of the heirlooms with cold- and drought-tolerant barley.
She says it’s an opportunity to support farmers, brewers, consumers and maltsters. They’re the people who turn grain, usually barley, into a non-alcoholic liquid that can then be passed over to the brewers to ferment into beer.
According to a renowned German scientist, “Malt is the soul, hops the spice, yeast the spirit, and water the body of beer.”
But has the increase in microbreweries here in Montana affected the amount of malt barley that people are growing?
“I think it will. I think what’s going to happen is we’ve got some of these craft maltsters starting up to that will then feed into the craft brewers, and I think the craft maltsters in Montana will contract directly with growers,” Sherman says.
Since developing a new variety takes a long time, breeders need data to make sure they’re on track. That’s where MSU’s Barley and Malt Quality Lab comes in.
“These are our micro-malters. With these, we’re able to fully control the whole process with these - when water’s coming in, what the temperature is, what the timing is,” Hannah Turner, the director of MSU's Barley and Malt Quality Lab, says while giving a tour of the lab.
Turner and the students who work in her lab take samples of grain and turn it into malt through a very specific process of soaking, heating and drying.
They test for things like the malt’s protein-to-starch ratio, which affects how enzymes can turn starch into sugar, and the level of beta glucan, which plays a role in the beer’s thickness.
“Jamie Sherman, when she came on as the breeder, right away recognized that in order to make selections for malt quality, we need more data, earlier in the process and to be able to do that, we needed to be able to test right here on campus,” Turner says.
It’s the only lab in the Northern Great Plains region that can provide a complete analysis of barley malt.
Before it was built in 2016, samples were sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s lab in Wisconsin. It’s where pretty much all the other barley breeders send samples. They’re limited on how many samples they can send in and it takes a while to get results.
“By establishing this lab, we more than triple the amount of data we’re able to produce for the breeding program,” Turner says.
Since it’s a public lab, Turner gets samples from maltsters across the U.S. and Canada.
“We produce a certificate of analysis and that’s something that when they go to the brewers, they can say, 'Here’s my malt, here’s what it’s all about', and the brewer can take that information and incorporate it into their recipe and their brewing regime,” Turner says.
The lab is also working on a big flavor project right now in collaboration with researchers at Colorado State University. They’ve malted and tested hundreds of varieties to look at the chemical compounds to understand why they taste different.
This information could help Montana’s burgeoning market for local, craft malts.
The Butte-based company Montana Craft Malt opened a 10,000-ton malting facility two years ago and more farmers have started malting their own barley to improve their profit margins selling a value-added product.
“There’s a lot of people in the world that love beer but have never heard of malt before and don’t know how much work goes into that delicious beer,” Turner says.
Turner hopes more outreach from the lab and the barley breeding program will change that.
She’ll be giving a presentation about her work, along with Jamie Sherman, at the Montana Brewers Conference in Missoula Thursday and Friday.