Craft beer makers tap CFANS expertise to keep the brewing industry hopping

By Becky Beyers

Charlie RohwerNext time you hoist a locally made craft beer, consider making a toast to CFANS, for without the college’s research and outreach efforts, you might be drinking a less flavorful, mass-produced beverage.

Why? Consider this: The past decade’s boom in craft brewing has intensified the efforts of scientists across the college who collaborate on research about two of the major beer ingredients, barley and hops. Many people in the beer-brewing community credit Charlie Rohwer, plant scientist at the Southern Research and Outreach Center, with helping hops grow from a hobby to an industry in Minnesota. And several of the fledgling local industry’s most ardent advocates have close ties to the college, including alumni Eric Sannerud and Benjamin Boo, co-owners of Mighty Axe Hops. They recently announced plans for an 80-acre expansion, creating by far the largest hops grower in the state.

Healthy Hops

The number of hops growers in Minnesota has more than doubled in the past four years, says Angela Orshinsky, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, who works closely with growers statewide. Because craft brewers use more hops than mass-market beers—and because of consumers’ interest in locally grown food and drink—demand for Minnesota-grown hops is high.

angela orshinsky“Until recently, part of the reason hops weren’t grown in the Midwest was downy mildew,” she says. “Most hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, where the environment is much less conducive to downy mildew. Here, disease-conducive environmental conditions last through the whole growing season. It's very aggressive and destructive." New mildew- tolerant varieties from established hop-growing regions have helped solve some of that problem, along with better understanding of how to keep plants healthy.

For Orshinsky and her colleagues, fine-tuning hops growing techniques and then sharing that knowledge with local growers is essential. A half-dozen CFANS scientists belong to a USDA-funded network of researchers, the Great Lakes Hops Working Group, studying hops-growing from the Dakotas to Vermont with specialties that include plant breeding, pest prevention and best growing practices. Disease prevention is key. "A lot of growers are new to this and don't know how to apply fungicides legally and appropriately. People don't always realize that's what they need to do." Developing solid recommendations takes a minimum of three years," she says. "It's very climate-specific," with tests taking place at the college's Research and Outreach Centers across the state, to see how different growing conditions affect hops plants.

A century ago, downy mildew wiped out the hops growing in the Midwest and eastern United States, shifting production to the Pacific Northwest, where established breeding programs developed a handful of tolerant varieties that can be grown here," Orshinsky says. Powdery mildew is also a major threat to hop production. "Here in the Midwestern states, both mating types of the powdery mildew fungus exist. However, the Pacific Northwest region only has one mating type. There is a concern that some hop enthusiasts may send hop plant material to the Pacific Northwest region despite a quarantine order," she says. "The introduction of the second mating type to the Pacific Northwest could pose serious management challenges for hop growers in a region where 30 percent of the world's hops are grown."

Despite the national boom in hop farming and craft beer brewing, funding for research that will help the industry thrive has been hard to find, because hops are considered a specialty crop. Orshinsky and her colleagues in CFANS collaborate on research across a wide range of disciplines, which she says is unusual for similar institutions. "We're all working toward the same goal, which puts us in a unique and beneficial situation."

Better Barley

Historically, the barley breeding program in CFANS partnered with the malting industries and large breweries, says Kevin Smith, professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics. A few years ago, "we saw what was happening and shifted our research toward development of two-row barley varieties, which are more popular with small brewers."

beerBarley becomes an ingredient in beer when harvested grains are soaked in water until they start to germinate, then dried to stop the germination process, a process known as malting. The dried grains—malt—provide the sugars needed for fermentation.

Traditionally, barley research in CFANS had focused on six-row varieties (the number refers to how kernels of grain are arranged on each node of the stalk) because they tend to have higher enzyme activity and thrive in this climate. Large American breweries have used six-row barley in beer for decades, but that's changing, Smith says.

Craft brewers generally prefer two-row barley because in part its larger kernels yield more malt extract, and ultimately more beer from the same grain. The higher enzyme levels in six-row barley are important for brewers that use adjuncts like rice or corn. Craft brewers prefer to do "all-malt" brewing which doesn't require additional enzymes to convert the adjunct starch into sugars. Recently, the two major beer trade associations—the American Malting Barley Association and the Brewers Association—developed new guidelines for breeding barley that addresses all-malt brewer needs, which is important for Smith and his colleagues to direct their research.

The goal is to create varieties that are agronomically productive, Smith says. Historically two-row barley has been susceptible to leaf diseases, which is one reason barley is no longer a major crop in Minnesota. Other crops became more profitable, which drove down barley production, but now the craft brewing renaissance has again created a market for locally grown barley.

With new funding from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Rahr Malting Co. will expand its malt evaluation capacity and provide important data back to CFANS researchers. "That will expand our ability to measure things that brewers are interested in," Smith says, and help better tailor new barley varieties to brewers' specifications.

"One big challenge is to connect the scale of a breeding program that produces thousands of small grain samples, to the commercial scale that needs large samples of only a handful of new lines to test." he says. "We are excited meet this challenge and work with our local brewers to put beer made from locally produced barley in their growlers."

The whole process takes time. Smith's lab has two-row barley varieties in development but they won't be ready for testing for another two years or so—which should be about the same time the small-scale malting equipment might be ready too.

Smith's program is one of only a handful of barley research efforts at U.S. universities. He and his students are tapping into reams of data mined during the 10 years of the Barley CAP research, a U.S. Department of Agriculture multi-state effort aimed at making barley a more viable crop.

In addition, "we probably have more barley scientists here at the U than anywhere in the world," including the plant pathology department and U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cereal Disease Lab on campus. "We are well positioned to conduct the research that will support Minnesota grown barley and welcome conversations with our local stakeholders to help make that happen."