New barley breeder touts malt barley

By Bob Brueggeman

Barley was an important small grain cereal crop grown on large acreage in Washington State until about a decade ago. The grain back then was targeted for domestic and overseas feed markets, hence the barley breeding program at Washington State University has historically been focused on high yielding feed varieties.

As advanced breeding and biotech corn varieties were developed by private industry, (coupled by the end of U.S. export programs), corn acreage exploded in the Midwestern U.S. supplanting the need and the market for barley as an animal feed. Thus, feed barley prices dropped and acreage in Washington declined as prices of more profitable alternative crops were grown or farmers went to wheat after wheat rotations.

An important class of barley that can never be displaced and brings the producer a premium price is malting barley. Used in beer and spirits production, malt barley is a multibillion value added industry in the U.S.

That’s why, as the new Robert A. Nilan endowed chair of barley research and the barley breeder at Washington State University, the main focus of my program will be the development of malting barley varieties that are adapted to Eastern Washington’s diverse dryland growing conditions. But I’m not starting from ground zero.

More than a decade ago, Steve Ulrich and Kevin Murphy, who held the barley breeding position before me, started making crosses from Canadian and Midwestern breeding programs with feed barley lines adapted to Washington. Using Washington Grain Commission funding as well as Robert A. Nilan endowed research funds, Ulrich began making crosses with malt barley lines in the early 2000s. After his retirement in 2011, Murphy continued the work by developing populations and making selections from this material.

Developing a breeding program that releases adapted material that can meet malt barley quality standards is not an easy task and 10 years is a short time to do so, considering that Midwestern U.S., Canadian and European breeding programs have been focused on selecting for adapted malt quality varieties for nearly a century.

Last year Murphy released the first WSU malting variety named “Palmer” after Mary Palmer Sullivan. Sullivan has been a strong advocate for barley in Washington as one-time administrator of the Washington Barley Commission and now vice president of the Washington Grain Commission. Palmer is targeted towards the craft malting industry and is gaining attention from craft maltsters and brewers in the state. (Photo)

As I take the helm of the WSU barley breeding program, I will continue the trajectory of developing malt barley varieties that meet the specifications for the still burgeoning craft beer and distilling industries. Another objective will be to meet the quality standards required of the big beer players as that segment still command a larger market share.

To meet both these demand centers we are taking a close look at material coming down the WSU barley breeding pipeline. We are identifying experimental lines that meet quality parameters and focusing on making new crosses to develop varieties that meet the specifications needed to be selected as an American Malting Barley Association (AMBA) recommended variety.

To make the AMBA list, which had 37 varieties in 2020, experimental lines are put under high scrutiny and must pass each of the strict malt quality standards. Currently, WSU experimental lines are not quite meeting the mark. Barley lines in the pipeline, however, are meeting all the AMBA quality parameters except for low Beta-glucan.

           I believe I’m well positioned to tackle the challenge of selecting varieties that meet AMBA specifications based on my expertise in barley molecular genetics. I received all three of my degrees at WSU while working in the barley molecular genetics lab of Andris Kleinhofs. I took this expertise with me to North Dakota State University (NDSU) as the barley pathologist/molecular geneticist. There, I started the first DNA sequencing lab in North Dakota and used it to genotype  NDSU’s two-row malt barley breeding material with genetic markers to select for barley malt quality and disease resistance.

           The NDSU barley breeding program headed by Rich Horsley was having trouble bringing down beta-glucan levels, but as a testament to the success of the DNA marker selection lab we wound up being able to identify many more lower beta-glucan alternatives.

           We are currently developing a similar DNA marker panel in collaboration with Deven See, a USDA-ARS research geneticist who leads the Cereal Genotyping Lab in Pullman. With this technology we intend to screen a large number of lines already in the pipeline as well as those from new crosses in order to expedite the process of identifying high quality malting lines—which will in turn expedite the release of WSU varieties that can meet AMBA standards. 

Another bottleneck for WSU and other U.S. malt barley breeding programs is evaluating experimental lines for malt quality data. All breeding programs currently rely on the USDA-ARS malt quality testing lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Each program is allowed a quota of ~ 400 lines per year which is insufficient.

To break this bottleneck at WSU, I am happy to announce the start of the WSU Malt Quality Lab (WMQL) on the Pullman Campus in the summer of 2020. Establishment of the WMQL was made possible through equipment funding from the Washington Grain Commission. The WMQL will allow the WSU breeding program to screen our own material but will also serve as a service lab offering malt quality testing to third parties, filling a need in the craft malting, brewing and distilling industry in Washington and the Western US.

The grand vision for the program is to one day see WSU spring and winter malting varieties as an option to fallow winter wheat in a rotation, significantly increasing barley acreage in the state and region. Farmers like barley in rotations due to its soil ecosystem services.

I would like to see WSU barley varieties fill the demand for locally sourced malt in the craft brewing and distilling industry with attributes and flavor profiles the industry desires. Additionally, due to the quality of grain produced by farmers in Washington, our barley varieties should be targeted for the international market. Again, this means they must make AMBA and adjunct malting specifications.

We are well positioned to make this move as Eastern Washinton has a lack of barley diseases such as Fusarium Head Blight, which is pushing barley production out of areas of the Midwestern U.S. that were traditionally known for malt barley production. In the past two years there have been studies predicting that the world will experience malt barley shortages due to drought and disease in major barley growing regions around the world. Wouldn’t it be great to have WSU malt barley varieties grown in Washington help fill the void?

 It is always encouraging when I quaff a beer to see “Brewed with Washington sourced barley” on the bottle. But it would be even more promising to see Washington barley being used to brew beer in Japan or Mexico, wouldn’t it?


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