From barley to beer

BOZEMAN – Since humans have been brewing beer for most of our existence— some experts say beer recipes date back 5,000 years—it’s difficult to imagine civilization without it, and one particular grain is a key component. “We say, ‘no barley, no beer,’” said Hannah Turner, Montana State University’s Barley, Malt & Brewing Quality Lab Director.

Beer’s key ingredient, barley, also plays a huge role in Montana’s agricultural history. Barley and wheat have been staples of the Treasure State for centuries and to this day, Montanans plant more barley than almost any other state in the country. Montana seems to possess a love of craft beer that is akin to their devotion to its main ingredient. The state regularly sits in the top three consumers of craft beer per capita and according to the Montana Brewers Association, there are currently 92 breweries operating in the state, a number that is consistently growing.

Between the volume of barley the state produces and its inhabitants’ love for craft beer, the MSU Barley, Malt & Brewing Quality Lab serves as an integral resource. The lab is an educational and outreach epicenter for growers, maltsters and brewers across the country. In fact, growers and brewers as far north as Canada and as far south as Texas receive data collected by the lab.

It all starts with barley breeding—the process of incorporating new traits to improve varieties. The idea is to produce high-quality and consistent barley. It starts by crossing lines that have desirable traits but are not well adapted to the Montana environment with lines that are agronomically successful in the region and that will cross will produce thousands of offspring. From there breeding involves growing, monitoring and selecting over 10 to 12 years to narrow down to the one line that embodies the qualities the lab was originally aiming for.

When MSU’s barley program director, Jamie Sherman, started in 2015, she had a vision for how the future lab would serve the region and used startup funds provided by MSU to establish the Barley, Malt & Brewing Quality Lab by 2016. “We’re very unique in that way,” said Turner of the lab’s services. “There weren’t any other public labs that were able to do this so we kind of set an example.”

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