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Growing interest in colored barley

Old, new strains catching on with brewers, specialty food industry

By Jo McIntyre

For the Capital Press

Barley has a colorful history, and researchers say it may have a colorful future, too.

Interest in colored barleys is a growing trend, Patrick Hayes, of the Oregon State University Crop and Soil Science Department, said. Purple is the biggest seller so far, with the preferred variety named Karma.

"It is a good specialty for health food stores," he said.

He also sees potential for other uses for food barley, because it is nutritious and heart-healthy. Sales haven't taken off yet, but small amounts of pearled barley are used for canned and home-made breakfast cereal, soups and stews.

Estimated barley production for 2010-11 in the U.S. was 43.2 million bushels in Idaho, 5.8 million bushels in Washington and 3 million bushels in Oregon. Other high-producing states are Montana at 38.4 million bushels and North Dakota at 43.5 million bushels.

The primary interest in the grain in Oregon right now is for beer. The brewing industry buys barley by the ton for malting. The American Malting Barley Association sets standards for approved barley varieties for that purpose.

OSU's breeding program has test sites in Corvallis, Hermiston, Pendleton, southern Idaho and Washington. OSU also exchanges seed materials with Germany.

The cereal grain is divided into two main groups: two-row and six-row. The heads have either two grains per row, or six. Historically, brewers have preferred two-row barley. It was considered premium in the U.S., but that is probably because it was from Europe.

Today, mainstream and craft brewers still want two-row strains, but the industry has become interested in a winter six-row barley. In principle, there is no difference between the two in yield.

It takes 11 to 13 years to develop a new, desirable strain. Each development stage increases the size of the test amount as researchers scale up. Varieties are eliminated at each stage when bad or undesirable characteristics show up.

Other interesting grains at Hyslop Farm were wild and ancient barley strains from countries like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Some are 10,000 years old.

Staff members also demonstrated crossing techniques and pearling machinery in the greenhouses.

Hayes said names for new crosses aimed to be evocative and memorable. They are based on names of both parents of a successful strain, for example, Oregon Promise, for a malting barley.

Oregon Promise is working well in Oregon because it is short, so it won't blow over in downpours or winds, and cold-tolerant.

The presentation were part of the recent OSU Barley and Friends field day.


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