A panel discussion at the sixth annual Empire State Barley and Malt Summit, held Dec. 14 at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

Barley and malt summit hails new Cornell-bred barley varieties

More than 100 growers, maltsters, brewers, distillers, educators and researchers raised a glass to celebrate New York’s booming brewery and distillery industries at the sixth annual Empire State Barley and Malt Summit, held Dec. 14 at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

For maltster Dennis Nesel, co-owner of Hudson Valley Malt, the biggest cause for celebration this year is the arrival of new Cornell-bred barley varieties, designed to withstand New York’s wet climate and fungal pressures. Nesel began malting in 2015, when the primary barley varieties available to New York growers were bred for the more-arid West and Midwest.

“Cornell has been kind of like the cavalry coming to save us pioneers,” Nesel said. “These new varieties take some of the risk off the shoulders of the growers and give us the opportunity to really deliver on the promise of craft beers and spirits grown here, malted here, brewed here and enjoyed here in New York.”

Professors Mark Sorrells, of plant breeding and genetics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Gary Bergstrom, of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology (CALS), worked closely together to develop the new barley variety, Excelsior Gold, which was released in spring of 2020.

Sorrells led the breeding effort, growing barley in both New York and New Zealand to double his growing windows, while Bergstrom helped test and select for disease resistance, identified the most effective fungicide applications, and worked closely with Cornell Cooperative Extension educators to train growers on management practices that helped them successfully raise barley suitable for malting.

This year’s harvest is the first in which Excelsior Gold has been widely available, and the results have been astounding, Nesel said.

“In 2015 we bought maybe 20,000 pounds of grain. This year we bought 1.35 million pounds, and I want to double that next year because I have the customers,” he said. “You can only get brewers and distillers to commit to New York grains if they have faith in the supply chain, and now they see that Cornell has come to the rescue with these new varieties. I think the future holds a lot of good things for New York craft beers and spirits.”

Sorrells has released one other spring barley variety, CU198, and he’s now developing winter barley varieties.

"We used the latest technology and put a lot of time and effort into development of these varieties,” he said, “but until we see farmers, maltsters and brewers accept them, we are never certain they will succeed.”

Since 2014, the Cornell Barley Project has surveyed commercial barley fields annually and tracked what percentage of sampled grains and lab-produced malts met safety and quality standards. Special attention is paid to whether the fungal toxin deoxynivalenol (DON) is below 1 part per million, and that grain germinability is above 95% – a critical factor for turning barley into malt and then to alcohol, Bergstrom said.

“Cornell research and extension efforts have resulted in a core group of New York farmers who are consistently growing malting barley to meet the quality standards for malt,” Bergstrom said. “When we started out planting an acre of barley, it was a 50-50 chance whether it would be bought by a malthouse or end up as animal feed. Now, greater than 80% of our harvest is acceptable for malting.”

The barley and malt summit was sponsored by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, Cornell CALS and Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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