Can you taste the barley variety in that beer?

by Dr. Pat Hayes, Oregon State University

You are likely already a member of the choir long accustomed to the chorus “barley is the base of beer”. This popular refrain can, of course, be easily expanded to embrace the obvious contributions to flavor and color achieved by the kilning regime used in the final stage of malting. But what about the contributions of barley variety per se to the paler shades of malt? This simple question, building off the intuitively appealing observation that heirloom tomatoes at the farmers’ market in August taste better than supermarket tomatoes in January, turned out to be tougher to answer than it seemed. A fact realized by a gang of barley scientists convened at the (late) Happy Gnome in St. Paul, Minnesota several years ago in their quest to identify a new rallying point for the barley research community. 

In the intervening years, supporters, including the “Flavor Six-Pack” of visionary craft brewers and the Brewers Association, funded collaborative research culminating in a series of papers that identified subtle, but significant, contributions of barley variety to beer flavor. This research, due to the scale of malting and brewing required for beer sensory analysis, was based on the assessment of a limited sampling of barley genotypes. The genes determining flavor contributions were unknown until a research consortium – led by Maria Munoz Amatriain (currently at the University of Leon) with partial support from the American Malting Barley Association (AMBA) and a key partnership with Rahr Malting, began their investigation. The consortium used a tool called quantitative trait locus (QTL) to map the reference barley genome to identify some intriguing candidate genes for malting quality and beer flavor. 

As a result; breeders, growers, maltsters, and brewers take heart and take heed – exciting new varieties and new markets are on the horizon! Grab a flavorful beer and feel free to relax with some al dente pasta, or perhaps a rare steak (or Impossible Meat), and read on at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcs.2022.103430. The paper is open access at the Journal of Cereal Science.  

To learn more about innovative barley flavor research, visit Oregon State University’s Barley World online. This project was funded in part by AMBA’s research program, which is supported and guided by direct contributions from our membership. Learn more about our research here: https://ambainc.org/about/barley-research/