ABERDEEN, Idaho — Barley breeder Gongshe Hu has sought help from crop researchers in an arid North African country as he starts working to develop a drought-tolerant malt barley variety well suited for the growing craft brewing industry.
Hu, with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, asked officials with an international germplasm collection center in Morocco to send him two-row barley lines with good drought tolerance and high yield potential.
This season, Hu planted about eight lines — all top performers in Morocco’s drought nursery, where they received reduced irrigation — in Aberdeen to expand seed for further evaluation. He hopes a few will perform well in the local climate and make good parents to confer drought tolerance in his breeding program.
Hu explained that craft brewers typically use all-grain recipes, requiring malt barley with lower protein levels than malt used in brewing beers commonly produced by large brewers, blended with corn or rice sugar. Dryland farming conditions, however, tend to elevate protein levels.
Hu’s breeding project will seek to combine drought tolerance with low-protein genetics to create a cross usable by dryland growers raising malt for all-grain brewing.
“It looks like we will have five or six lines that grow pretty well in this environment,” Hu said.
Hu will plant the seeds he’s raising this season in Aberdeen’s drought-tolerance nursery next season to evaluate them against local lines. Hu said it could take as long as a decade for the project to yield new varieties — even with his program speeding the breeding process by raising some generations of crosses in New Zealand during winters.
“At the moment, we’re trying to introduce as much genetic diversity as we can for drought tolerance,” Hu said.
Drought tolerance is also a trait Oregon State University barley breeder Patrick Hayes has prioritized.
“Low protein is always important for malting barley, especially under dryland conditions,” Hayes said.
The American Malting Barley Association added all-malt guidelines for barley breeding in 2014, specifying all-malt varieties should have less than 11.8 percent protein, a percentage point lower than standard malts that are blended with adjunct ingredients.
“A low protein, dryland barley would potentially be useful throughout craft brewing, and would be especially desirable considering increasing environmental pressure throughout barley growing regions,” said Damon Scott, technical brewing projects coordinator with the Brewers Association.
Both the Brewers Association and AMBA have supported research regarding drought tolerance.
“The whole malting barley industry would be interested in any lines that would be more drought tolerant,” said Scott Heisel, AMBA’s vice president and technical director.
Soda Springs dryland farmer Scott Brown, who serves on the Idaho Barley Commission, raises malt barley for large brewing companies, and he generally meets their protein specifications. But Brown believes a lower-protein dryland variety would allow his growing area to tap into the craft market, and potentially enable dryland growers in other regions that now raise only feed barley to produce malt.