Seed World

Reviving a 1916 Barley for Michigan Breweries

After one full season of field tests in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Michigan State University (MSU) researchers say Spartan barley is a strong contender as a locally sourced ingredient for the state’s budding craft brewery industry.
“It shows a lot of potential,” says Christian Kapp, research technician at the MSU Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center. “I was very impressed with its appearance in the field. It stood well … It didn’t lodge or fall over before harvest, the stems didn’t break, and very few of the barley heads fell off during harvest. Those are all hallmarks of a good barley.”
Spartan barley isn’t a new cultivar. In fact, it’s quite old. It was developed by MSU in 1916 and became widely planted throughout the United States by the late 1950s. Its prevalence eventually waned, however, as new cultivars were introduced.
But attention has turned back to the heirloom barley because of its strong ties to and deep roots within MSU, along with rising demand for local ingredients among Michigan craft brewers. MSU AgBioResearch agronomist Russell Freed, an accomplished plant breeder, wanted to try to resurrect the plant. First, he had to receive seeds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture gene bank in Utah.
Freed germinated and grew the 80-year-old seeds first in a greenhouse on the MSU campus. After that, they were grown in a field test under the direction of Kapp. The initial goal of the 2015 trial was to increase the supply of Spartan seeds for future testing, but the results also indicated strong potential as a Michigan crop.
In recent years, the number of craft breweries in Michigan has increased dramatically, rising from 105 in 2011 to more than 160 in 2016. The breweries annually produce more than 825,000 barrels of craft beer while relying on barley grown in places such as North Dakota and central Canada, where climatic conditions are more favorable for modern cultivars.
Aesthetically beautiful with bluish gray seedheads, Spartan barley demonstrated characteristics that would make it a good fit for Michigan’s cool climate. In particular, the seeds sprout much later in the season, a trait that increases its marketability.
“A lot of the newer malting barley varieties are bred to be malted right off the field,” Kapp explains. “That’s good if you’re growing in North Dakota or Montana, which have relatively arid high plains conditions. For Michigan, however, where there is high humidity and heavy rain at the end of July and early August, low-dormancy varieties have the potential to sprout early. Malthouses cannot use barley that has already sprouted, and you’re left to sell it for cover crops or livestock feed.”
This past season, Spartan was the last barley standing in the field, with harvest happening shortly before Labor Day. Kapp says it weathered the season’s heaviest rains without sprouting, unlike most other varieties.
Not all of the news was positive, however. In addition to seed dormancy and physical durability, malthouses also require low levels of crude protein. Crude protein is an estimation of the amount of protein in a given food based on the amount of nitrogen it contains. Each of the amino acids that come together to form protein contains some level of nitrogen, and a food’s crude protein value is derived from tallying up that nitrogen content. In malting barley, malthouses look for crude protein levels of under 12 percent for two-rowed barleys. Spartan measured 17 percent.
“That isn’t great, but we’re not giving up hope yet,” Kapp says. “We managed last season’s crop to maximize the number of seeds produced, not for malting quality. That means we added more nitrogen to the soil than we otherwise would have, which could have played a role in raising those numbers. I’m hoping we can control it through cultural practices, but that’s something we’ll have to test.”
Despite the setback, researchers say industry interest in Spartan barley remains high.
The next step for Spartan is to continue expanding the seed supply. Seeds have been sent to Western Ag Research in Arizona, where they will be planted and grown over the winter. Once harvested, the seeds will be returned and another seed expansion plot will be grown over the course of this summer. After that, the team will be ready to test for its malting utility.