Bringing Barley Back to the Valley: OSU Rejuvenates Oregon’s Barley Crop, Brewers Get Amped

Scott Fisk harvests barley from test plots at OSU's Hyslop Farm near Corvallis, Oregon. Photo courtesy of OSU; photographer: Lynn Ketchum.

Oregon State University has been successfully working on reestablishing barley in Oregon, according to Oregon’s Agricultural Process magazine. Professor Pat Hayes and his team now have about 10,000 experimental barley varieties that they monitor for hardiness, disease resistance, and yield.

Though barley remains an important crop worldwide, its prominence in Oregon has decreased substantially in the past 50 years. OSU researchers and local farmers would like to see Oregon barley play a more prominent role in food and beer.

One technique Hayes is working on to make this happen is double-haploid production. Tiffany Woods writes that this “involves regenerating plants from pollen in a petri dish, and creating genetically pure lines of barley in just one generation, as opposed to the six to eight years required through traditional inbreeding.”

This results in the same barley being produced each year but not by genetically modifying the barley. The researchers neither add nor change the DNA in the process.

The fruits produced by Hayes and his team can hopefully be tasted soon. Their hardy and popular Alba variety has been successfully malted and brewed by Skagit Valley Malting and Brewing Company.

Locally, though, there’s no large malting company in the Willamette Valley. Weston Zaludek, who calls himself the Yeast Shepherd (a.k.a. Brew Master) at Oregon Trail Brewery in Corvallis, would like to change that. He claims that brewers get stuck as middlemen, breaking down someone else’s grains, hops, and yeast. It bothers him how much fossil fuel is used transporting all the supplies, and he does not see the system as secure or sustainable.

He is not alone. Local brewer and owner of Block 15, Nick Arzner, believes buying and using local is key to his business.

“Utilizing locally sourced ingredients whenever possible is the core of Block 15.   We are constantly searching for and testing products from local and regional providers,” he said.

Zaludek wants to move away from the current set-up to something more akin to the Trappist method where they “grow everything on location. That’s what inspired me to brew,” he said.

Harvested barley from the test plots at the Oregon State University Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center near Pendleton, Oregon. Photo courtesy of OSU; photographer: Lynn Ketchum.

Agrarian Ales in Eugene is doing just that. Their goal is to grow everything that goes into their beer. Ben Tilley and Tobias Schock grow certified organic grains, estate hops, and consciously grown herbs and other ingredients to make Belgian and French farmhouse style beers.

No longer do the words estate grown and terroir refer only to wineries—brewers are moving local, too. “The more local we go, the more true we are to our own land and to the true flavor of our own land,” Zaludek said.

Zaludek applauds Agrarian’s efforts and hopes to open his own malting facility in the future to serve his and other brewers’ needs.

Max E. at Corvallis Brewing Supply is another big supporter of Agrarian Ales. He notes that a beer with terroir—the flavor imbued by a region’s climate, soil, and geography—currently means a higher price for beers.

But many home and local brewers who come into his store are very interested in their grains.

“We’ve had more questions on where the grains are coming from and whether they’re organic,” Max said.

“Generally, the more local of a product, the less handling and middle men, which equates to a more true character,” said Arzner.  “It is very exciting in our brewery to think about working directly with  locally malted barley. This could give us the ability to dial in a unique profile for the heart of some beer recipes.”

This growing respect for locally sourced ingredients in beer is “part of a larger respect for DIY food, especially here in Corvallis,” Max noted. “It’s huge.”

Growing barley is certainly more challenging than growing hops, which is one reason Hayes and his team are testing so many different kinds. But the initial difficulty does not seem to be putting off many brewers or beer enthusiasts. Both Max and Zaludek had anecdotal evidence for a growing trend of local producers, processors, and brewers.

Hayes’ research seems right in line with what many brewers are aiming for—high quality and locally produced sustainable ingredients.

“This is the future of where craft beer needs to go,” Zaludek noted.

If OSU researchers have their way, people like Zaludek will have an easier time getting there.


by Bridget Egan