Kernz-huh? Could the perennial promise of Kernza benefit food, beer, and the world?

Close up of threshed Kernza perennial grain seeds and unthreshed Kernza seed heads // Photo courtesy of The Land Institute

There’s a new-ish crop that’s been sprouting hopeful conversation in recent years. Kernza is the name given by Kansas-based The Land Institute to a specific germ line of perennial wheatgrass. Like a long-lost, wild cousin of traditional, annual wheat, it has the potential to help the environment and increase food production in incredible ways. It’s still in development, but producers have already had success incorporating early varieties into bakery, beer, and booze. So, what’s afoot?

In short, perennial crops help retain organic matter in the ground, decrease erosion, and provide habitat for wildlife. Kernza’s extremely deep root system—built up over the plant’s longer lifespan—capitalizes on water and nutrients that other crops can’t reach, and it protects groundwater because it needs far less fertilizer than its annual counterparts.

“This is the first grain crop designed explicitly for its ecological functioning,” says Lee DeHaan, University of Minnesota alum and lead scientist for The Land Institute. “We know that the healthy functioning of prairie ecosystems is dependent on a vast underground network of perennial (long-lived) roots. When we remove these roots and grow short-lived plants, nutrients are lost from the system into the water or air. When these nutrients escape, they become pollutants, contaminating water and contributing to climate change. Furthermore, these lost soil nutrients represent an economic loss to the farmer, since purchased fertilizer is used to make up for the loss.”

U of M professor Donald Wyse says that in addition to its many ecosystem services, growing Kernza wouldn’t require a major investment in new equipment or processes for farmers. There’s still some skepticism anytime a new crop is introduced to the market, however. Even the soybean was, until the mid-1940s, just an experimental crop with a low yield and a lot of questions about its viability, explains Wyse. Kernza’s at a similar tipping point. Its characteristics are promising, but there’s still optimization to be done. And there needs to be a proven market for it before farmers—especially small-scale ones weathering such a tough agricultural market—jump on-board.

Dr. Lee DeHaan with interns and graduate students at The Land Institute, collecting data on and hand threshing Kernza perennial grain // Photo courtesy of The Land Institute

“It’s a grand idea. There are lots of potential benefits to our agriculture and food production,” Wyse says. “But it’s going to need continued investment to develop higher-yield varieties. It’s going to depend on the willingness of corporations to increase the public’s interest in the crop, and it needs to find a place in the market.”

U of M food scientist Pam Ismail isn’t too worried about that. She says Kernza has higher protein and fiber content than traditional wheat, which makes it “great from an efficiency standpoint.” But she says it’s lower in a certain protein that’s needed for dough strength, so scientists are working on crossing and screening individual lines for their viability in bread and other applications that don’t require those same characteristics.

Comparison of Kernza root system to common wheat at full growth // Graphic courtesy of The Land Institute

Its flavor has also been a challenge. Because of its deep root system, Kernza takes on a stronger terroir of the area where it’s grown. “But sugar and fat can mask almost anything, right?” adds Ismail with a laugh. She and a small army of scientists are working to develop Kernza for expanded—and more palatable—uses.

Meanwhile, Kernza is already putting down roots in the national brewing and distilling world. Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland, Oregon—in collaboration with Patagonia Provisions—created Long Root Ale from the grain. It’s brewed with organic barley and yeast; organic Chinook, Crystal, and Mosaic hops; and a Kernza variety first grown on a test plot in Rosemount, Minnesota. And its reception has been very positive.

Hopworks’ Eric Steen says that the Kernza (which is currently used unmalted) has a “subtle flavor—a little like rye with an earthy nuttiness and a nice spiciness. In the mash, it acts like wheat and gets sticky […] you can go ‘stuck mash’ pretty easily.” Another issue Hopworks encountered with Kernza was when they tried to mill it. The grains have a “really small, thin, pencil-like shape—like wild rice, but even thinner,” says Steen. “Kernza slips through a lot of the wire mesh.”

Kernza on stem ready for harvest // Photo courtesy of The Land Institute

Sustainability is at the heart of the Hopworks brand, so despite practical setbacks, the team is committed to working out the kinks. They’ve already gone into year-round production of Long Root and expanded distribution into California, and they’re looking at other markets. Future goals are clear: “We need a bigger kernel and a way to malt it,” Steen says.

St. Paul’s Bang Brewing confirms they’re also developing a Kernza beer, although its release isn’t on the calendar yet. On the culinary side, Minneapolis’ Birchwood Cafe has been using Kernza for years, trying it out in everything from fresh bread to scones, cupcakes to crackers. They’ve even used whole Kernza grains in a farro- or wheat berry-style salad, and Kernza tortillas have become a constant on Birchwood’s breakfast menu.

“The tortillas almost taste like a sort of sourdough—they have a grassier, complex flavor,” says Birchwood Chef Marshall Paulsen. The flour is milled and delivered fresh every couple of weeks from Baker’s Field Flour & Bread in Northeast Minneapolis, mixed and rolled out in the Birchwood prep kitchen, and the tortillas are cooked to order so they’re as fresh as possible.

Standard combine harvesting Kernza® perennial grain on Charlie Melander’s field south of Salina, KS // Photo courtesy of The Land Institute

While reception has been positive among conscientious clientele, like the regulars at Birchwood, it’s going to take time and tweaking to get Kernza-based goods on more American tables (and in more American glasses). According to Ismail, that has to start with raising awareness of Kernza’s potential for changing our food landscape.

“We are science geeks. Beyond just making food, we’re looking at the makeup and breakdown of these crops,” says Ismail, who’s hopeful that with continued work, the Kernza message will get out of laboratories and into mainstream culture. “We have to put the crop within a story of what will save the earth, save the world. And I think companies are willing to invest to make this happen.”

 
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