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MALT - Save the genes, save the beer!

Back to the future

While seed research in recent years has focused on the ideals of resistance and high-yielding grain, there are now movements in favour of preserving old varieties. This may be less economical, but it serves a higher goal: it helps to safeguard the genetic diversity of raw agricultural ingredients. And suddenly we were like gods: by breeding plant and animal life, humanity is at a threshold that seemed unattainable even just a few decades ago. 

With the help of modern genetic engineering, it’s possible to transform practically everything that grows and flourishes into genotypes for us to put to optimal use. We can even engineer entirely new creatures that have never been seen before in the natural world. 

Proponents of genetic engineering point to the resulting high resistance to pests, endurance to weather-related stress, and the increase in biomass that will be able to secure the future of world food supplies. Sceptics, on the other hand, stress that the standardisation of breeding objectives has also led to the standardisation of crop varieties. There’s little doubt about this conclusion when you look at the global cultivation of soybeans, corn, rapeseed, cotton, sugar beet, flax, tomatoes, potatoes and many other crops. Biodiversity is under threat and with it – without wanting to spread panic – so is our beautiful planet.
Malt variety
Out of the thousands of cultivated plant species known to us today, only about 100 of them are responsible for 90% of the world’s food supply. And of these 100 species, only three – rice, wheat and corn – make up more than half of human food consumption! According to a 1993 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, in the 20th century humanity has already lost about 75% of the world’s agricultural biodiversity – and every day, an increasing number of crops are becoming extinct, unless samples of them are entered into a seed archive for their vitality to be ensured. This inevitably results in the loss of plant characteristics that are less important in terms of their economic purpose, but which are still highly valued for aesthetic and cultural factors. 

An example of this is the two-row spring barley Golden Promise, which until recently was one of the most important varieties for whisky distilleries in the British Isles. Golden Promise has very homogeneous, small grains, which is ideal for whisky production. This variety also thrives in the harsh Scottish climate, producing particularly soft, sweet flavours. When combined with a sherry cask ageing process, it provides the traditional, fine taste of Scotland’s best whiskies.  

Golden Promise’s origin is rooted deeply in British native strains. It is a mutant strain released in 1966, created with gamma rays and the 1954 two-row spring barley Maythorpe, which itself is a cross between the 1889 two-row spring barley Goldthorpe and the 1927 two-row Danish winter barley Maja (also spelled ‘Maya’). Goldthorpe is, in turn, a variant of the ancient British native strain Chevallier, while Maja is a cross between two Scandinavian strains: Gold and Binder. However, Golden Promise is very susceptible to mildew, which is why it was replaced in the 1980s with the Triumpf variety, which was created in former East Germany. Since then, Golden Promise has almost completely disappeared from cultivation. Even today, real Scotch lovers are still posting on blogs mourning the loss of whiskies made with Golden Promise.

 In the beer sector, things are little different: today’s elite varieties of barley have all emerged directly or indirectly from native strains from the 19th century. Because barley self-pollinates, these old varieties are all naturally formed, agricultural inbred strains that are adapted to the region, and which have evolved through thousands of years of phenotypic selection. These varieties of malting barley were often cultivated over several decades. However, selection alone cannot create new varieties with increased potential. That requires genotype crossing, which has allowed researchers to combine valuable characteristics of two parent varieties into new plants for cultivation. Today’s marker-assisted breeding methods even make it possible to incorporate genetic material from several plants simultaneously into new varieties – which enables the emergence of so-called ‘elite’ varieties. 

The problem is, for durable native strains, we know exactly how the plants perform in terms of resistance, flavours, stress, yield and adaptation to growing conditions, even if they are agronomically less desirable than the modern, highly bred elite varieties, which all become obsolete after about a decade as they either become genetically unstable, mutate or are superseded by even better varieties.

An old malt machine is displayed at a fair
Saving the past for the future
Fortunately, some organisations have recognised the importance of preserving genetic diversity of agricultural raw ingredients to ensure yield security for the future and they are working on archiving older, stable, and local native strains. One of these institutions is the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich in the UK, where Sarah de Vos has been working for years to preserve the classic spring barley Chevallier, which was used in almost every beer in the British Isles during the Victorian era (19th century). Chevallier is completely different from modern British varieties in terms of its genetics. De Vos reports: “It was hard work initially to prove the variety’s disease resistance in the field through several years of cultivation trials. It wasn’t until three years later that the idea came about to show that this variety could also be used to brew a good beer.” In the end, this led to the variety being registered in the EU Common Catalogue of Varieties, with Sarah’s company New Heritage Barley serving as official conservator for this variety. The work was not in vain, as the malthouse Crisp Malting re-commercialised this variety six years ago. Chris Ridout, a scientist who was involved in the revival of Chevallier barley, says: “Crisp now sells Chevallier all over the world. Craft brewers in the US in particular are constantly creating new beers using this old variety.”
There are efforts to breathe new life into old varieties in Germany too. The Steffi® variety, for example, has enjoyed a steady fan base worldwide for years, being recognised especially for its foam stability and full body. Alexander Strube from Saatzucht Ackermann reports: “Steffi® was licenced by our company in 1989 and has never disappeared from the market, even after its commercial heyday during the 90s. Its genetic origins range from the Himalayas to the Lower Bavarian native varieties Ackermann’s Isaria and Donaria. Incidentally, work is also taking place to produce new editions of these ancient malting barleys – with truly Bavarian genetic origins.” Another example is the highly aromatic Barke® variety from the Breun seed cultivation company, released in 1996, which has indirect roots in Czech and British native strains from the 19th century. According to Martin Breun, its yields are about a quarter less than the dominant varieties of today. However, the variety has very positive qualities when it comes to processing in malthouses and breweries, which is why it is still being cultivated on a small scale. 
The innovative craft brewing scene in the USA is an important market for both varieties. 

Angela Lang from the Rhön-Malz malthouse has already discovered an interesting market in Germany for historical varieties. She reports: “In addition to the Chevalier and Spiegel varieties, we have also been offering native barley from Franconia since October/November 2018. Processing them in breweries is somewhat more complex, so brewers can and must draw on their technological knowledge. Compared to today’s high-performance varieties, historical varieties have a different composition, and initial scientific findings suggest that there is still a lot of potential, especially in terms of food compatibility and bioavailability.”

Worthless? You must be joking! – Old varieties can save the world

Since the beginning of human history, diversity of agriculturally exploited species has been the basis for life and survival in a changing world. Exotics, uncultivated and primitive varieties often served as insurance against disasters, such as droughts, advancing or receding ice ages, or new pathogens and pests. Plants can only survive ecological changes through diversity that is adapted to local conditions. Since we do not know what conditions climate change will present for our crops in the future, it is risky – perhaps even irresponsible – to allow genetic capacities developed over thousands of years to disappear from the gene pool. 

Even if such some traits seem worthless today, they may prove to be life-saving for humanity at some point in time, because the vitality of old heirloom and terroir varieties allows breeders to draw on seasoned genetic material time and again. When it comes to choosing malt for a tasty beer, the past is therefore increasingly becoming the inspiration for the future.