By Hannah Turner

Published: Montana Craft Beer Connect

Did you know that plant breeders share something in common with fortune-tellers? Both have a career in seeing the future! From the initial crossbreeding of two plants, the process typically takes 10 to 12 years to produce a variety ready for farmers, so breeders need to see into the future and develop lines that will be ready to meet industry needs a decade later!

The process starts with an idea—an aspect to improve upon or a problem to solve. For the barley program here at MSU, this means our breeder, Jamie Sherman, collects barleys from various sources that exhibit variation for the particular trait she will focus on. Barleys could come from seed banks (which curate plants from all over the world), other breeding programs or from within our own stock of Montana-adapted varieties.

To be successful in barley breeding, it pays to start with a collection of plants that shows as much variation on a given trait as possible. From a collection like this, Sherman will begin crossing the selected barleys in our greenhouse, which starts with the tedious time-sensitive task of getting all the varieties flowering at the same time. She then uses tweezers and magnifying glasses to transfer the pollen from the “male” parent to the “female” parent and waits to see if each cross takes.

To hedge their bets, barley breeders will typically perform this process for multiple breeding targets each season; for example, this year we have crosses for improved agronomic performance, malt quality, flavor, disease resistance, environmental stress tolerance and improved food characteristics. Successful crosses produce offspring embodying genetics from both parents. Planting the resulting seeds and harvesting the grain creates the first generation of the cross.

Several generations will be planted and grown in the greenhouse over the first year, with the goal of creating consistency within the plants. This produces a family of plants from each cross that could include as many as 200 unique plants, or “lines.” The first year’s work creates a diverse range of barley families that will be narrowed down in the following years, as Sherman selects the best lines to advance over time. The goal, ultimately, is to end up with the single line that best exhibits the ideal combination of traits and meets the breeder’s original idea.

By the second year, the crosses will have entered their fourth generation and single plants from each line of each family will be ready to move out into the field. At MSU, this means planting trial plots at the Arthur H. Post Agronomy Farm. Lines will remain in trials at the Post Farm for several years; during that time the collection will be pared down from about 2,500 total lines to about 60 of the most promising.

Sherman will walk these plots throughout the summer, making selections on traits like height, length of time to head production and time to head maturity. In addition to the obvious science, there is a degree of art involved in this—much of the process is based on feel, as there is not yet enough seed produced to start making key measures such as plant yield, protein content and malt quality.

Those considerations begin in earnest during the third, fourth and fifth years of the process, once seed volume for each line has reached sufficient levels. This timeframe also sees the ability to measure varied agronomic and malt quality traits that can further inform selections between barley lines. In the third year we can begin malting tiny volumes of seed—just 5.6 grams—which gives us a rough look at how the lines could perform as brewing ingredients.

By the fourth year and beyond, larger volumes of seed, up to 120 grams, can be malted for more robust evaluations. At MSU, we are able to perform this malting and testing in house, making our barley breeding program unique in this regard.

At year five we begin evaluation for environmental stability, which means running growing trials across the state—from Havre to Huntley, Sydney to Kalispell, and Moccasin, Bozeman and Conrad in between. We get a thorough look at how the lines will perform in diverse environmental conditions—hot, dry, wet, varied disease pressure, varied agronomic practices and more.

This hefty amount of information will allow Sherman to hone in on the single best-performing line by about generation seven or eight; that line will get released. Each released line is officially named and considered a new variety, but is still not ready for farmers simply because there is not yet enough seed to plant in substantial quantity. At this point, the variety goes through two programs overseen by the university: a year of seed increase with the Foundation Seed group and then a year with the Certified Seed program to ensure pure lots (high quality grain free from weed seeds and disease). After that, farmers who lined up to receive the first batches will finally get a shot at it.

An interesting point to add is that most breeding programs set the goal of releasing a new line every year, meaning that in any given year you will find all of these steps going on at once. It’s a lot to keep straight, and a program like ours couldn’t do it without a great team—the MSU barley program is made up of about 13 hard-working and dedicated staff and students!

Our latest malting barley release is called Buzz, named in honor of Buzz Mattelin, a barley farmer out of Sidney and great champion of both our program and Montana agriculture in general. Buzz touts consistently low protein in dry environments, super-plump kernels, and quick, high-quality malting. Brewers have noted its pleasing flavor and have favored it in sensory comparisons. This summer Buzz barley is growing with select farmers and we are super excited to see it malted and in some craft beer this fall! Make sure to keep a lookout for this locally-bred, -grown and -brewed beer ingredient!