Michigan State University

June 30, 2016: MSU’s century-old barley revived to make Michigan beer

Jon Harrison
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In the waning days of prohibition, Congress legalized 3.2 beer, opening up a new market for Michigan farmers.

For years they had been growing Spartan barley, a grain developed at Michigan State College in 1916, and sold it to soup makers and producers of livestock feed. After low-alcohol beer became legal, maltsters from Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee discovered it made a good malt for beer too, according to a 1933 article in the Detroit Free Press.

Spartan barley would be widely grown across the U.S. It enjoyed a 30-year reign among farmers and maltsters before being replaced by modern varieties that originated in North Dakota, said Ashley McFarland, director of Michigan State University's Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center in Chatham.

And then it vanished.

The state’s craft beer boom and the buy-local movement have convinced MSU researchers to return the plant to its Michigan roots.

“The whole idea of locally grown barley to make your brew is resonating very well with the microbrew industry,” said Russell Freed, MSU professor emeritus and international agronomist. “That’s what’s sparking the revival.”

The only place the MSU researcher could find Spartan barley was locked away in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s gene bank in Utah.

Freed, a former plant breeder at MSU’s main campus, used his contacts at the USDA to get 5 grams of seeds and grew 80 plants in the greenhouse behind the Plant and Soil Sciences Building off Bogue Street.

He shipped the seeds from those plants to the extension center in Chatham where the researchers grew them on a 30-by-30-foot plot in the spring of 2015 to further increase the seed numbers, McFarland said. They were then sent to a farm in Arizona and grown over the winter for another seed increase and are now grown on an acre at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners, northwest of Battle Creek.

The next challenge is to make sure the barley has the proper protein levels to be malted, McFarland said. The ideal protein level for good malting barley is between 9 and 12 percent. Levels that are too high leave too little sugar available for fermentation, affecting the alcohol content. Levels that are too low affect the flavor and color. Last year, a preliminary test showed Spartan measured at 17 percent.

It’s not a major issue, McFarland said, but one that will require a closer eye on the nitrogen levels in the soil where Spartan is grown. When it’s retested this summer, McFarland said results should be more promising.

“The fact that it was grown in such a large area back in the 1940s and 1950s (for malting) would indicate that it can still be malted and produce beer,” Freed said.

For the full article, see Alexander Alusheff, "MSU’s century-old barley revived to make Michigan beer", Lansing State Journal, June 30, 2016

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