Craft brewers spark new markets, new challenges for breeders

The craft industry prefers barley varieties with lower enzymatic activity

Barley breeders at the University of Saskatchewan are hoping to develop a long-term relationship with a new player in the North American brewing industry — the craft brewer.

Aaron Beattie, head of oat and barley breeding at the university’s Crop Development Centre, said North American craft brewers represent a significant opportunity for barley breeders and barley producers in Canada.

But assessing the needs of craft brewers has presented challenges.

“It’s a question that we’re still grappling with a little bit right now because … craft brewing is quite a diverse group of businesses and so their needs do vary quite a bit within that category,” Beattie said.

He says breeders are still trying to determine what they are looking for.

In a recent interview, Beattie said the North American craft brewing industry produces between 10 and 12 percent of the continent’s beer by volume and buys 25 to 30 percent of the malt sold in North America.

Based on those numbers, craft brewers can no longer be called a small market.

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Beattie said the craft industry deserves much of the credit for stabilizing North American barley acreage, which had been declining until recently.

“I think that we’ve probably seen that barley acreage has reached a new plateau of normal acreage …,” he said.

“I think with some of the changes that we’ve seen in the malting industry, and with craft brewing in particular, it’s revitalized interest in malting barley.

“It feels like there’s a bit of a breath of fresh air in the industry now … and with some of these smaller craft brewing companies, they’re establishing more one-on-one relationships with growers, which I think is something that a lot of growers appreciate being a part of.”

However, nailing down the industry’s needs has not been easy from a plant breeder’s perspective.

The CDC’s barley breeding program would like to develop new varieties targeted specifically at the craft brewing industry, but that could prove a difficult mark to hit.

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“The craft brewing industry seems to (prefer) … a slightly different malting profile,” Beattie said.

“Generally, the information that we’ve had coming back (suggests) that they’re looking for malt that has lower enzymatic activity than the varieties that are currently being used.”

Until new barley varieties are developed that are aimed specifically at the craft market, craft brewers are likely to make do with a variety of existing or older varieties, including some that were put out to pasture by commercial barley growers years ago.

Copeland, which is widely grown across the Prairies, is among the most well-known varieties used by craft brewers.

Other varieties that have found their way into the craft brewing recipes include Harrington, Scarlett, Golden Promise and other varieties that were popularized 30 or 40 years ago.

“Some of the craft brewers are just looking for something different,” Beattie said.

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“They really are covering the full spectrum when it comes to varietal choice.”