Researchers try to crack barley’s beer code

Scientists want to know what aspects of barley makes beer tasty, which could help them create better malt varieties

LACOMBE, Alta. — Researchers are hoping to better understand what aspects of barley make beer taste good or bad, using flavour information to potentially create new varieties that make both farmers and brewers happy.

Alberta Agriculture and other research groups have partnered with the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre (CMBTC) to extrapolate barley’s flavour profile. They will look at two-row varieties such as Synergy, Bentley, Metcalfe and others.

Once experts at the CMBTC determine what aspects in the crop make it flavourful or unpalatable, researchers can use that information to potentially create varieties that make delicious and unique beers, said Lori Oatway, a grain quality research scientist with Alberta Agriculture.

“I think we’re focussing more on flavour now. It’s really opened up due to the growth in craft beer,” Oatway said during a field day in Lacombe at the Field Crop Development Centre in late July.

The CMBTC will be micro-malting and brewing 50 to 100 kilogram batches of barley. A panel of industry representatives will taste all the samples to develop a detailed flavour profile for each one.

From there, the organization will do biochemical testing to uncover the activities of tiny proteins and phenyls in each batch. By doing that, they would then be able to determine which microbial activities are creating tasty or yucky beers.

Oatway said researchers could then compare their barley lines with that biochemical data. By using near infrared technology, they could screen a sample for that data and essentially predict its flavour profile. The technology has already been used to predict a sample’s protein content, digestibility and malting capabilities.

If a barley sample screens well for flavour, they will keep it. If it screens poorly, they will get rid of it.

“If we know one that will throw a sulfer smell or taste, we can reject it,” she said.

As well, researchers could screen tasty barley from the United Kingdom, such as Golden Promise and Maris Otter, for their flavour profiles, and potentially include their traits into future varieties. Whatever is created would obviously need to grow well in Canada, Oatway said.

“If we get a spring variety that grows under our conditions with low disease, then we have a winner.”

She said the CMBTC project is a launching pad for research opportunities. Once flavour profiles are identified, she said it will allow researchers to make a better case to get funding for larger breeding projects.

“The funders might be more willing to put out money if they knew exactly what we’re targeting,” she said. “This is really an opportunity for us to further develop the industry.”

She said results from the project are expected to come in 2021 or 2022.

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