MSU Malt Quality Lab provides barley malt quality analysis for craft beer and food industries

Jamie Sherman, associate professor of plant sciences and plant pathology in the College of Agriculture at Montana State University, discusses the process to discover market qualities of barley malt from a lab sample. MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

A bottle containing samples of Dark Crystal barley variety is displayed in the MSU Malt Quality Lab. The lab offers a feefor-service full malt quality analysis.

MSU photo by
Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

Montana State University is now home to Montana’s first public Malt Quality Lab, the only lab of its kind in the Northern Great Plains region that can provide a complete quality analysis of barley malt used in craft brewing, human and animal food industries.

The lab is funded largely in thanks to Montana’s wheat and barley farmers through check-off funds, voluntary funds charged at point of sale used to fund research and development with the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, and with additional support from the National Brewers Association and the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station. Outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment that includes a densitometer and Gallery analyzer – instruments that can determine the overall quality, enzyme potential, starch availability and protein content of barley malt, the lab serves a unique purpose for one of Montana’s cornerstone agricultural industries.

The establishment of the lab means that the MSU Barley Breeding Program can process data points of malt barley six times faster than using a national lab, the closest of which is 2,000 miles away in Wisconsin, according to Jamie Sherman, MSU barley breeder and assistant professor of plant sciences in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture.

Located in the Plant Biosciences Building on the MSU campus, the lab is able to take fee-for-service samples for malt data analysis from the public, a service that will benefit Montana’s agricultural community, barley farmers and associated malt barley industries, Sherman said.

“The lab is an incredible asset for MSU, Montana and the industries we have here that use barley malt in products either as a central ingredient or as an additive,” Sherman said. “Ultimately, the lab gives us an opportunity to select for qualities important to the market, so that we can find out faster what barley lines produce the highest quality malt.”

Sherman added that the lab is also conducting research to identify unique malt qualities, such as flavor and quality stability under stress. This research will complement MSU’s Barley Breeding Program, Sherman said, because it allows for quality selection earlier so that MSU can improve malt quality as well as agronomic performance. The lab also provides research opportunities for graduate students in various areas aspects of barley breeding such as the impact of field management on malt quality and genetic quality analyses.

“Our goal is to introduce unique quality traits identified by the lab into barley varieties for Montana growers and end-users,” Sherman said. “Given the hundreds of possible barley breeding crosses and thousands of barley lines, an analysis of barley malt earlier on in the process will guide us when it comes to selecting genetic traits for flavor and other qualities.”

Malt, or germinated cereal grain, is used in flour, cereal products, dairy products, cookies, breads and pet food and is a central ingredient in the craft brewing industry. According to the Montana Brewers Association, there are 53 licensed breweries in Montana that use more than 7 million pounds of malted grain, half of which is grown in Montana. The association estimates a collective annual economic impact of $60 million.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2016 National Agricultural Statistics, 1 million barley acres were planted in Montana, and growers averaged 57 bushels per acre, valued in total at $270 million. Montana Wheat and Barley Committee Executive Vice President Collin Watters said the MSU Malt Quality Lab is an investment in the future of Montana’s barley production.

“The committee invested in the Malt Lab primarily to deliver high quality barley varieties to Montana growers in a timely fashion,” Water said. “However, the lab’s capacity also allows for cooperative fundamental research and fee for service functions, which is unique. The new varieties and other discoveries which come from the lab will improve profitability of barley production in Montana.”

MSU Malt Quality Lab Director and MSU Research Associate Hannah Turner said the process to generate a quality analysis from a sample takes about one week. The grain is first placed into a temperature-controlled micro-malting machine that can process up to 16 different lines of barley at one time. The grain is first mixed with water where it steeps for two days and begins the germination process.

Turner said the goal is to elevate the grain moisture level to about 45 percent. Once there, the grain is kept for four to five days in high humidity conditions with intermittent turning to allow for germination just up to the point before a plant shoot would emerge. Next, the grain is dried in a kiln for 24 hours in a low-heat regime that preserves enzymes required for the grain’s starches to form fermentable sugars, which is important later to produce alcohol, Turner said.

“Essentially, at this stage, we’re pausing the germination process of the grain, which is now considered malt,” she said. “The goal at this stage is to dry the grain in a low and slow manner to about 4 percent moisture content, a percentage that grinds and stores well.”

Next the malt is milled into a fine granular consistency, mixed with water, and heated in a controlled program for two hours to create a sugary liquid called wort, a process known as extraction.

“The malt extract is kind of like yield for a brewer and is one of the most important qualities for barley breeding,” Turner said. “Greater than 81 percent malt extraction is optimal.”

The malt extract is then measured in a densitometer, a machine that measures the level of vibration of the wort. The denser the wort, the more sugars it has. Next, a Turbidimeter shines a light through the wort to measure the wort clarity via refraction of the light. Remaining quality tests are automated with a Gallery analyzer, a machine that uses different light wavelengths to determine quality characteristics of the wort such as soluble protein, beta-glucan, free amino nitrogen, color and enzyme levels.

“Depending on the end user and their desired quality, there are varying criteria and quality parameters for each test,” Turner said. “For example, craft beer producers are looking for lower enzyme levels than a distiller.”

Sherman said given the decrease in planted barley acreage across the United States, barley growers needed a reliable pipeline of barley lines and genetic research so they can remain profitable and malt barley markets can remain competitive.

“We’re lucky to have a truly collaborative network of brewers, barley growers and scientists,” Sherman said. “Our goal always goes back to the grower in our desire to achieve consistency in quality and environmental stability in barley lines. Testing lines after lines for quality benefits the entire community and allows us more control of our destiny. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to test barley lines on site and to know, in a matter of days, if the barley produces good malt.”

To submit a barley sample for a malt quality analysis, download a sample submission form from the lab’s website at montana.edu/barleybreeding. For more information on the MSU Malt Quality Lab, contact Jamie Sherman at jsherman@montana.edu or (406) 994-5055.

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