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Big Idea

How a new breed of barley can save our beer from climate change

Bringing a brewer’s malt back to the Midwest

By Tony Rehagen

Climate change is coming for our homes with floods and wildfires. It’s aiming for our wallets with higher energy costs, and it’s coming for our bodies with higher temperatures and deteriorating air quality. Still, millions of Americans go blissfully about their lives.

But what if climate change came after our beer?

Irregular rain patterns are putting a pinch on American barley, the most common source of malt — an essential ingredient for all beer, from pale ales to porters. Since we can’t change the weather, scientists and researchers are trying to change the grain, creating better, more plentiful, hardier barley to keep our pint glasses full, even as ocean levels rise.

The problem: A false start for the malting process

Most North American barley is now grown in the American west, between eastern Washington and western Minnesota. Due to climate change, more rain now falls on that region in July and August, during the barley harvest. The increased moisture causes the barley grains to germinate prematurely in the field. “There have been complete losses of barley crops due to pre-harvest sprouting,” says Eric Stockinger, associate professor of horticulture and crop science at Ohio State University. “If it’s already germinated on the plant, then it’s pretty much useless for brewing.”

That problem extends worldwide: Extreme weather damage to the global barley crop is expected to cause supply shortages and price hikes for beer brewers and drinkers all over the world. One study, published in the journal Nature Plants in 2018, looked at climate models and their impact over the next 80 years of barley yields. The researchers estimated that the price of beer could jump five-fold in some parts of Europe, while global beer consumption could drop by as much as 16 percent.

The solution: Geography, genetics, and a hardier barley

Before Prohibition decimated the market, Ohio produced 350,000 acres of barley and was home to hundreds of malt houses. Now, Origin Malt, an Ohio-based company, is working with researchers, farmers, and brewers to create a more winter-ready strain of barley that would reopen the Midwest to large-scale production and create a new supply chain of regional malt.

“We’re looking for disease resistance, winter hardiness, and brewing qualities.”

Victor Thorne, Origin Malt’s co-founder

The climate from Illinois to western New York is conducive to winter barley, which is harvested in April and May — if it survives the cold. So Origin Malt has teamed with scientists like Stockinger to cross-breed barley strains and develop a genetically superior malt. “We’re looking for disease resistance, winter hardiness, and brewing qualities,” says Victor Thorne, Origin Malt’s co-founder. “There are very specific characteristics that craft brewers strive for, but have to pay a premium for and import from Europe. We’re trying to develop a brewer’s malt.”

The challenge: Time, trial, and error

Stockinger and his team have spent a decade examining hundreds of lines of winter barley, looking for those three key criteria — disease resistance, winter hardiness, and brewing quality. The trouble is, no one strain features all three equally. For instance, Stockinger says, a set of barley lines developed in Missouri in the 1960s has survived polar vortexes that even hardy European varieties couldn’t weather. But that Missouri barley doesn’t quite have the flavor, aroma, or lower total protein (which impacts enzyme levels) that brew a good beer. “So you cross Parent 1 and Parent 2, produce 100 offspring and ID the combined parents,” says Stockinger. “That’s what breeding is all about.”

Breeding takes time. Once researchers finally find a combination that appears viable, it takes years to get to the purity levels necessary for broad distribution. “Time and money are two of the challenges that are keeping people out of this space,” says Thorne. “You have to have a lot of patience.”

The big picture

Farmers in and around Ohio have planted Origin Malt’s preferred barley varieties as cover crops in the past few years, then moved the resulting malt to local craft brewers. The early returns have been promising.

The next goal is to increase acreage. The company planted 7,500 acres of barley in 2018 and about 10,000 acres last year. Its five-year goal is 75,000 acres in the region. Origin Malt also wants to establish a malting facility near Columbus, Ohio, and enlist more growers, brewers, and distillers to further solidify a supply chain. The results will be more barley for America’s brewers, a viable cash crop for farmers, and an affordable local supply for Midwestern breweries — which cuts back on long-haul shipping’s carbon footprint, helping to fight climate change.

“I always wondered, why aren’t we growing barley in Ohio?” says Stockinger, who’s been a home brewer since 1988. “Growers said it will never take off. It has taken off. I like to think that Ohio is going to be the hot place to be — and not temperature-wise.”

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Tony Rehagen is a writer based in St. Louis.

Photo by Philipp Schulze/Associated Press

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