Beer Brewers Push for New Great Plains Barley Cultivars

January 3, 2017 01:32 PM
Barley Collage

The craft beer boom continues its popularity push. According to 2015 data, even though overall beer sales declined slightly (-0.2%), craft beer saw 12.8% gains and now accounts for more than 12% of all U.S. beer sales.

Malting barley is a critical component of any craft beer, but this grain crop hasn’t seen the same robust growth in recent years. The American Malting Barley Association reports that acres have been down or flat for the entire 21st century, hovering at less than 4 million total acres.

“Barley is facing stiff competition from corn, soybeans, canola, wheat, and other crops that are receiving substantial private sector investment, including GM variety development, and that have more favorable federal farm program provisions,” according to the group’s annual report.

But AMBA and other groups have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars toward barley improvement research and successfully lobbied Congress and USDA for millions more in funding. One of the more recent research stories comes by way of the Brewers Association, which has awarded four regional barley breeders and geneticists with a grant aimed at developing winter malting barley varieties specifically adapted to the Great Plains region.

This effort could develop a new region for national brewers to tap for malting barley, and it would open up a local source for regional brewers. Grant recipients include researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Panhandle (Neb.) Research and Extension Center, Kansas State University and Oklahoma State University.

According to UNL, barley adapts well to different types of environments, but some regions are less able to grow the kind of high-quality barley needed for malting. Because of the relatively dry climate in the lower Great Plains, this region has relatively low Fusarium head blight problems and is therefore considered a good candidate for a geographical expansion attempt.

The grants are funded for one year but will be renewed dependent on research progress.

Past barley research efforts have proven wildly profitable. According to AMBA research, FY2016 research funding of $13.5 million saw an ROI of $277.1 billion, mostly captured via increased income for breweries and additional tax revenues generated.

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