With new barley variety, Cornell leads way for brewers
By Krishna Ramanujan
Cornell researchers have just released a new variety of New York-adapted spring barley, to meet needs created by a 2012 Farm Brewery Bill that expects New York’s craft brewers to steadily increase the amount of state-sourced ingredients used in their beer.
As of last year, the bill required that New York’s brewers source 60% of their ingredients from New York growers. By 2024, brewers will need to acquire 90% of their ingredients from state sources. The law aims to revitalize the upstate economy by supporting economic development for farmers as well as brewers.
Demand for barley and hops used to make beer is high: The Empire State has the second-highest number of breweries of any state in the U.S., with a total economic impact of $5.4 billion in 2018, according to New York state statistics.
“What the New York State Legislature didn’t realize [when they passed the 2012 law] was that there was no malting barley being grown in New York,” said Mark Sorrells, professor of plant breeding and genetics. While barley for animal feed has been grown in New York state, malting barley had not been since Prohibition, which went into effect 100 years ago.
As a result, farmers scrambled to grow varieties found in western states and plant breeders began working on New York-adapted varieties that are resistant to local fungal pathogens and pre-harvest sprouting in the state’s wet climate. Dormancy while the grain is on the plant is important because Western barley varieties grown in New York often sprout on the plant prior to harvest, making it unacceptable for malting.
Now, Sorrells, his graduate student Daniel Sweeney, and colleagues, have developed, in record time, a locally adapted variety of malting barley.
“I made our first [breeding] crosses in 2016,” Sorrells said, in reference to mating two parent barley varieties to combine favorable traits.
Sorrells is co-principal investigator of the barley development program, “Born, Bred and Brewed in New York.”
“In four years, record time, we went from our first cross to a variety for release,” Sorrells said. “That’s about one-third the normal time it takes to develop a malting barley variety.”
Sorrells and colleagues sped up their breeding program by using advanced molecular marker techniques to identify favorable genes and then raising nurseries of breeding lines in New Zealand, during winters in the U.S. The team also has more varieties in the pipeline, including winter barley.
“We really need both kinds of varieties,” said Gary Bergstrom, professor of plant pathology, and the project’s other co-principal investigator. Winter barley is planted in the fall, harvested in early July and often yields up to 30% more than spring barley, which is planted in April and is harvested in late July.
“We recommend that farmers plant some of each to spread out their risk,” Sorrells said.
The New York-adapted spring malting barley has just been released to a handful of pre-selected farmers, who will grow a stockpile of certified seeds. Next year, the new seed will be distributed to up to 30 farmers around the state who have learned to grow barley, with the help of Cornell Cooperative Extension educators. Malt made from the first New York-adapted barley should be available for brewers to purchase by fall 2021.
In 2014, Cornell led efforts to educate New York farmers to grow malting barley.
Grain from the available varieties, adapted to the climates of Western states and Canada, was not well adapted to for New York’s wet climate, and the plants were susceptible to pathogenic fungi, one of which creates a toxin called deoxynivalenol.
“That’s one of the biggest restrictions, we need to control the level of toxin below one part per million,” Bergstrom said. “If it goes above, it won’t be salable to a malt house.”
In 2014, Bergstrom and Sorrells teamed up with Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) educators to inform farmers about best growing practices for malting barley. That year, less than half the grain grown in New York met quality standards for use in malt houses; by 2017, more than 70% of the grain met standards, thanks to the team’s efforts.
The team, including CCE crop educators Aaron Gabriel, Kevin Ganoe, Christian Malsatzki, and Mike Stanyard, has since led educational field days, consultations with growers and created a webpage full of useful information for growing barley. It also hosts an Empire State Barley and Malt Summit each December.
“That’s been a terrific meeting that gathers the whole [New York craft beer] industry,” Bergstrom said.
John Hanchar, a CCE farm business management specialist, has developed budgets for both active and prospective barley growers, while Cheryl Thayer, a CCE local food distribution and marketing specialist, developed supply chain surveys to measure industry needs.
“Not only is this [Born, Bred, and Brewed] program important for the research and developing a barley variety that is suitable for New York’s climate, but it’s also been funding a series of extension experts throughout the state,” said Julie Suarez, associate dean of government and community relations in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “So everything that we do at the college is translated right from the minds of our faculty members, right through extension into the farm community.”
Suarez has facilitated acquiring state funding for the project through New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the New York State Legislature and the Genesee Valley Regional Market Authority.