Cornell plant detectives hunt for best barley for New York microbrews

May 5, 2014 – 04:49 pm

Mark Sorrells, chairma of Cornell Unversity's depment of plant breeding and genetics, looks over a test bed of barley last fall. Hs is part of research to find the best vareity of barley to grow in the state to support growth in microbreweries and distilleries.By Brian Nearing

Mark Sorrells, chairma of Cornell Unversity's depment of plant breeding and genetics, looks over a test bed of barley last fall. Hs is part of research to find the best vareity of barley to grow in the state to support growth in microbreweries and distilleries.

Mark Sorrells, chairma of Cornell Unversity's depment of plant...

Mark Sorrells, chairman of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University (right) and Gary Bergstrom, a plant pathologist at Cornell, look over test beds for barley. The two are looking at ways to increase the state's barley crop to help support growth in the microbrewery and distillery business.

Mark Sorrells, chairman of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell...

Albany

To make beer, brewers need a grain called barley, along with hops and water. A state law meant to encourage microbrewing requires brewers who want the "Made in New York" label to use at least 20 percent local ingredients by December 2018. By the end of 2024, that local share reaches 90 percent.

Adequate water and hops are not a challenge in the state. But growing the most-common varieties of barley, which is vulnerable to moisture and mold, is difficult in the upstate climate, and most farmers would rather plant other, safer crops that are easier to sell. Today, the state has just 2, 000 acres of barley under cultivation, and estimates project that at least 30, 000 acres must be planted to support a microbrewery boom.

When barley is germinated and dried to produce malt, it releases the sugars necessary for fermentation and, thus, alcohol. A typical gallon of beer requires about three times as much malted barley as it does hops.

Finding a way out of this barley bottleneck is where Mark Sorrells, Cornell's chairman of plant breeding and genetics, and Gary C. Bergstrom, a plant pathologist, hope to find a solution.

Both men were in the Capital Region last week to help persuade state lawmakers to continue support for Cornell's barley research, which during the last two years has focused on finding varieties best suited for the upstate climate, as well as for tolerance of modern agricultural methods that include pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.

Their hunt is like scouting the minor leagues for the next big prospect. There currently are about 40, 000 global varieties of barley, which is a type of grain related to grasses and was one of the first grains to be cultivated by humans. Sorrells has narrowed that down to just about 50 varieties — originating from Canada, Germany, France and Minnesota — that appear to be the most promising fits to the state's various microclimates.

There are six barley "test beds" scattered across the state where seeds now in winter slumber will emerge this spring. Barley has two growing seasons — it can be planted in the fall to harvest the following year, or in the spring to harvest that fall. During the last two years, test beds have been set on farms in Montgomery, Ulster, Yates, Livingston, Genesee, Tompkins and Monroe counties.

Source: www.timesunion.com

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