It’s not a question of if, but when an invasive species will threaten Minnesota hop crops.
That’s not meant to scare local hop growers or breweries that use them. It’s just something University of Minnesota professor Gary Muehlbauer is trying to prevent with his research. Luckily, he and two other U of M professors have recently been awarded Brewers Association grants to research hops and barley.
For Muehlbauer, the imperative research he and a grad student are doing is due to a fungal disease detrimental to hop plants.
“One of the constraints for growing hops in the Upper Midwest is powdery mildew,” Muehlbauer explains. “What we want to know is if we can identify plants or individuals from hop populations […] that can be used for creating varieties that are resistant to powdery mildew.”
While powdery mildew is always a concern, the introduction of an invasive Japanese hop—Humulus japonicus Sieb. & Zucc.—into Minnesota that is not used for brewing, has powdery mildew.
“It’s only a matter of time until the commercial operations get powdery mildew from these Japanese hops,” Muehlbauer says.
To prevent that, the professor has been working with a student who is very dedicated to hop genetics, breeding, and growing.
That grad student has spent time collecting wild hops in the Upper Midwest, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Germplasm Resources Information Network, and other sources. The duo will grow these 30,000-some seeds, and then screen them for powdery mildew resistance.
They can then go deeper into their genetics to look for resistant genes, which can then be used for breeding more resistant hops.
“(Growers) won’t have to spray as much fungicide, or any fungicide at all, if we can identify something that provides resistance,” Muehlbauer says.
Resistance seems to be the theme of the projects.
Professor Brian Steffenson is on a mission to give Minnesota a winter barley crop, and improve the environment through the Forever Green Initiative.
As anyone who has ever set foot in Minnesota in the winter knows, it’s cold, and barley doesn’t like the cold.
“Historically, in the Upper Midwest region, we grow only spring barley,” Steffenson explains. “And the main reason for that is we never really had sufficient hardy winter barley that would survive the winters all the time. So, we began to look at this, because there was a lot of interest. First and foremost, there’s a Forever Green Initiative, an initiative to get more crops on the landscape during the winter. This prevents soil erosion, and things like that. If you can put some crops on the winter landscape, you prevent nitrogen leaching, and conserve water—you contribute a lot to ecological services.”
The N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, a gene bank in St. Petersburg, Russia, may hold the genetic key.
The research center and gene bank contained seeds for barley that proved to be winter hardy from not only Russia, but Portugal, Spain, Finland, and more.
“Now we’re trying to continue to cross breed them with varieties that have good malting qualities, and have that winter hardiness,” Steffenson says.
This is the third year Steffenson has utilized the grant. And while there have been ups and downs (such as an entire crop season surviving—which doesn’t give him any data—and another dying), he’s optimistic.
“A guy like Casey Holley (co-founder) at Able Seedhouse […] he’s interested in sourcing from different farmers, and then he’ll malt it there,” Steffenson begins.
“Maybe brewers would become interested […] this would have a certain terroir,” he continues, or in other terms, provide very specific types of grain to people like Holley who want to use different, local types of barley in beer.
Fellow professor Kevin Smith is also researching barley. About five years ago he decided to look at two-row barley, and how to grow it in places like Minnesota—which has grown six-row barley for many years—and Indiana, New York, and more.
This will be the second phase of Smith’s project. By growing barley in these different states, and Minnesota, he can develop useful prediction models.
That would allow Smith to get a genetic fingerprint of new genetic lines that haven’t been tested before, and find out how much they yield, what the grain protein is like, and more by isolating DNA from the barley.
Smith thinks this work is a good way to support local craft breweries.
“That’s a really big part of our project,” he says. “Even though it is a national program, ultimately we want to release some varieties that are well adapted to Minnesota […] and have characteristics that can be used in our local craft beer community. Our goal is to put those things together, so both the farmers can benefit, and the brewers interested in locally produced ingredients.
“You can study lots of things as a researcher, but it’s important we make sure we study things that are relevant to those who will benefit from this research.”