The Botany of Beer

Research in Locally Grown Beer Ingredients

By Adam Overland
University of Minnesota Researcher Charlier Rowher // Photos by

University of Minnesota Researcher Charlier Rowher // Photos courtesy of University of Minnesota

There is no shortage of craft breweries, brewpubs, and Minnesota beers these days. A veritable wave of good beer and entrepreneurship has washed over Minnesota in the last decade, gathering size and speed in recent years. But almost without exception, one won’t find Minnesota beers brewed with local ingredients, at least not the big two – barley and hops.

While “Brewed in Minnesota” is something to be proud of, there’s a movement beginning that’s asking for more. In early April, the University of Minnesota held a craft brewing industry meeting – the first of its kind in the state – on the University’s St. Paul campus. Representatives from more than a dozen breweries, from August Schell to Dangerous Man, and a handful of companies with a big stake in barley and malting like Rahr and Cargill heard about the development of Minnesota barley and hops. But the event was about more than presenting the University’s side of the story, says organizer and University Professor Brian Steffenson – the University of Minnesota wanted to hear about the needs of the regional craft brewing industry.

“We have this burgeoning craft brewing industry, and they’re producing wonderful products, wonderfully diverse beers—and there’s a real need for the raw materials, both barley and hops,” says Steffenson. “I thought it would be a good idea to get the craft brewers together, and the malters, and let them know what we’re doing, but to hear from them, too, about what their needs are in terms of the raw materials.”

Big Barley

As it turns out, barley was once king in Minnesota. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, Minnesota was the biggest barley producer in the United States.

Just ask Paul Kramer, VP of Malting Quality with Rahr Malting Company in Shakopee, Minnesota. Rahr is the largest barley malting facility in the world. When it was built in 1937, says Kramer, “[it] was built in the middle of a barley field.”

Related Story: A Visit to Rahr Malting

But as corn and soybeans became more profitable, barley began to be pushed further north and west.

Today, Rahr still processes more malt than anywhere else, but they get much of their barley from 1,000 miles away or more, from Montana, Idaho, and Canada.

While “Brewed in Minnesota” is something to be proud of, there’s a movement beginning that’s asking for more.

Still, as recently as the 1980s, Minnesota farmed a peak of nearly 1.2 million acres.

The final nail in Minnesota’s barley coffin came in 1993 with a fungal disease called Fusariam Head Blight, which contaminates beer with metabolites that cause beer to gush over when opened. There is zero tolerance for it in the brewing industry, and contaminated barley was rendered unacceptable for anything but animal feed.

“We couldn’t stop the disease,” says Steffenson. “The fungicides didn’t work, and there was so much of the pathogen around each year that farmers got hammered by it.”

Farmers reacted by planting something else. Today, there’s not much more than 100,000 acres of barley, grown only in the very northwest corner of the state.

“The world is a penny business—if you can save ten percent in transportation costs, it gives you a competitive advantage for us and for brewers.” – Paul Kramer, VP of Malting Quality with Rahr Malting

With craft brewing coming on strong, Kramer sees the same opportunity that the University of Minnesota believes is on the horizon.

“For craft brewers – and there are 2,200 of them out there right now, and growing. They use twice the malt per barrel versus a light lager beer. But all the barley they want is 1,000 miles away,” says Kramer.

Kramer says the difference in transportation costs coupled with better barley bred at the University could make barley profitable again.

“There’s a lot of farmers who would love to grow small grains, and [local barley] would save us $1 a bushel in transportation costs,” Kramer says. “The world is a penny business – if you can save ten percent in transportation costs, it gives you a competitive advantage for us and for brewers,” he says.

So the University of Minnesota is doing two things – breeding barley for disease resistance and malting quality barley with a better yield. They think one key for the industry and for farmers may be in experiments with winter barley, which could result in “double-cropping.” Essentially, it’s a barley that is planted in the fall, begins to grow, goes dormant in the winter but survives, then continues to grow and is harvested in the last days of June. This process would allow farmers to plant a summer crop of soybeans on the same land.

Do that, says Steffenson, and barley could again be a competitive crop in Minnesota. “At the least, it could be a niche production area for specialty barleys used in craft brewing.”

Hops to it

University of Minnesota’s researcher Charlie Rohwer likes hops so much he almost named his son Fuggle, after a hop variety, but his wife vetoed the idea. He gave an overview at the University event about his research at the Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca, Minnesota. This is one of two locations where the University is growing a quarter acre of hops, identifying which varieties will grow best in Minnesota, and what kind of trellis system they will thrive on. Hops grow as vines, and here they grow in rows spaced apart about the width of a standard hallway, in thickening corridors rising ever upward. This Jack-and-the-Beanstalk quality is one of the aspects so fascinating to Rohwer.

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