Mid-Atlantic malting barley improvement

Final Report for FNE16-839

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2016: $14,987.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2017
Grant Recipient: Deer Creek Malthouse
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Mark Brault
Deer Creek Malthouse
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Project Information


The demand for “craft malt” has increased with the growth of craft beer and craft brewers are seeking barley malts with different quality attributes from those currently available in North America; therefore, resources are required to help close the supply gap and increase profitability and improve sustainability of Mid-Atlantic small grains for malting. Deer Creek Malthouse evaluated “strip trial” scale plots of malting barley varieties that have performed well in previous small-scale agronomic and micro-malting trials in the region. In addition, a malting barley crop management trial was conducted to evaluate the impact of previous crop, tillage, nitrogen rate, and resistance to pre-harvest sprouting.

All malting barley varieties showed excellent winter survival and high yields, but two row varieties (Scala, Violetta, TeePee, Wintmalt) were shorter (<33″ vs >38″) and had more tillering (average 0f 76 heads/sq-ft vs 56 heads/sq-ft) than six row varieties ( Thoroughbred, Maja). There was no significant impact from previous crop on yield or protein content. No-till following sweet corn had higher DON levels than other previous crops (1.30 ppm vs 0.59 ppm), and tillage after sweet corn reduced DON (0.53 ppm) but also reduced yield(101 bu/ac vs 135 bu/ac). Increasing nitrogen rates caused a corresponding increase in yield, but had a variable and inconsistent impact on barley protein content, presumably due to washout from rain. From visual plot inspection, a plant growth regulator application decreased height by several inches, but delayed maturity. Plant growth regulator also decreased yield by 11 bushels/ac, and reduced kernel size from 85% staying on a 7/64″ screen to 58% staying on a 7/64″ screen.

Despite subtle difference between varieties, all malting barley samples tested demonstrated some resistance to pre-harvest sprouting (PHS) as measured by falling number, tetrazolium staining, and the difference between germination energy and germination capacity. Violetta had the highest measured falling number, which suggests the highest level of resistance to PHS. Maja and Scala had elevated embryo activation by tetrazolium staining, which suggests the lowest level of resistance to PHS.

Overall, all malting barley varieties tested demonstrate good agronomic qualities and malting characteristics. Varietal contributions to flavor and leveraging sensory analysis for variety selection in the Mid-Atlantic is an area for further study.

Information on the variety trials and trial results were shared with farmers and the general public through two events. Deer Creek held a field day in early June 2016 to showcase the field plots and discuss early findings in addition to providing tours of the Malthouse to explain craft malting. Deer Creek also co-hosted a Philadelphia Grain and Malt Symposium in March 2017 where trial results and samples of beers made with malt from the trial were shared.


The demand for “craft malt” has increased with the growth of craft beer and craft brewers are seeking barley malts with different quality attributes from those currently available in North America that have been developed for large adjunct brewers. Consequently, there is a gap in the malting barley supply chain for Mid-Atlantic craft brewers who have limited access to local, high-quality malts that meet their specifications.

Malting barley has not been bred or cultivated on a commercial scale in the Mid-Atlantic for more than 80 years. Most of the current malting barley production and research occurs where large malting plants are located in the Mid-West, Canada, Eastern Europe, and Australia, which all have very different climates than the Mid-Atlantic. Therefore, resources are required to grow malting barley that meets quality specifications and provides good returns for local farmers in the Mid-Atlantic. In 2014, Pennsylvania alone produced 4.07 million barrels of beer (ranks 1st nationally) with an economic impact of $4.49 million dollars (ranks 2nd nationally). This volume of beer production represents more than 124,000 acres of barley. With only 150 acres of malting barley grown in PA in 2014, this supply gap represents a new and significant market opportunity for Mid-Atlantic farmers, maltsters, and brewers.

In Southeastern PA, unlike most of the Northeast, winter small grains typically do better than small grains planted in the spring. Summers are also very humid in the Mid-Atlantic, often with rain showers after maturity in the field. Therefore, key agronomic success factors for small grains grown in this region and intended for the craft beer market are winter hardiness, disease tolerance, and resistance to pre-harvest sprouting (PHS). PHS is common in the Mid-Atlantic growing region since dormancy has been selected against in most commercial malting barley varieties, which grow in cool dry climates where high-moisture harvest is not a routine threat.

Planting and harvest dates and optimum seed rates for winter barley in PA are well established and are published in the Penn State Extension Agronomy Guide. These guidelines apply well to winter malting barley cultivars based on trial results from 2012-present. Adequate nitrogen rate/timing, response to tillage systems, and impact of previous crop (on crop protein levels and head scab) are not well understood in the Mid-Atlantic however. Variety trials of malting barley at a scale that can support commercial test malting have not been performed.

To this end, Deer Creek aims to develop regionally specific agronomic practices for growing grain so farmers will have better success in meeting the standards for this market. The company believes that implementation of appropriate crop management best practices such as regionally adapted varieties, proper planting dates and seed rates, adequate nitrogen rate and timing, and application of disease controls will improve the likelihood that barley meets malt and beer quality standards. Additional benefits of this work include increased craft beer sales, new job creation, premiums for small grains farmers, new market opportunities for winter cover crops that reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff.

Research Project Manager, Mark Brault, has been farming and malting since 2012. He is a scientist, homebrewer, and supply chain professional who has lived in the greater Philadelphia area for the last fifteen years. He has a BS in Biology, a MS in Immunology & Microbiology, and a MBA in Strategic Management. He also received a certificate in malting education through a training program at the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre. Mark is President and Chief Maltster and oversees end-to-end operations at Deer Creek Malthouse.

Scott Welsh, also an owner and farmer at Deer Creek Malthouse, conducted most of the farming operations in this project. He has a degree in Agricultural Sciences from Penn State University and has farmed and worked as a farming consultant for more than 15 years.

Greg Roth PhD, Professor of Agronomy at Penn State served as technical advisor on this project.

Project Objectives:

In order to improve malting barley production, the main questions Deer Creek sought to answer were: 1) What existing commercial varieties grow best in the Mid-Atlantic, and 2) what are the optimum crop management practices to achieve the greatest profitability for malting barley farmers while maintaining grain quality. The hypothesis is that regional malting barley quality is variety dependent and specialized crop management practices are required to improve farming profitability and meet craft beer quality specifications.

To test this hypothesis, “strip trial” scale plots of malting barley varieties that performed well in previous small scale agronomic and micro-malting trials were evaluated at Deer Creek. In addition, a malting barley crop management trial was conducted evaluating the following variables: Previous crop, tillage, and nitrogen rate.


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  • Greg Roth


Materials and methods:

To address the question “what existing commercial varieties grow best in the Mid-Atlantic?” Deer Creek Malthouse planted between 1.5 and 2 acres each of six malting barley varieties (Scala, Violetta, TeePee, Wintmalt, Thoroughbred, Maja) that have performed well in small trial plots but have not been malted on a commercial scale in the region and evaluated for malting quality and flavor. The barley was planted on October 8, 2015, to be available for the project. Typical crop management practices were used, including fall fertilizer of 20-50-150 prior to planting, topdressing with nitrogen on March 3, 2016 (liquid nitrogen at 70 lb of N per acre), applying herbicide in early spring (Harmony Xtra on 3/23/16), and applying a fungicide at boot/early heading stage (Prosaro on 5/9/16). Field data, including winter survival, head count, disease ratings, plant height, and heading date were collected at five randomly selected spots in each field, using a one square foot “scouting square”. The plots were harvested in June 2016 by a neighboring farmer that has a combine set up for small grain harvest. Grain from the trials were cleaned and sized and evaluated for standard agronomic factors such as yield, test weight, protein, germination %, and DON (vomitoxin from fusarium head blight).

The different varieties were malted at Deer Creek Malthouse and analyzed for malting characteristics such as free amino nitrogen (FAN), α-amylase and β-glucan. Trial results were measured using a variety of analytical (wet chemistry) and practical (malting/brewing) tools to help determine the best regionally adapted varieties for farmers to grow in the Mid-Atlantic.

To evaluate PHS under more controlled conditions, 200 heads of each variety were harvested at physiological maturity (around 20% moisture) and brought inside to reduce exposure to moisture in the field. These heads were broken into four groups of 50 heads for each variety. One group received no moisture to represent ideal harvest conditions (“day 0”), one was misted for an 8 hour period to represent a “slight” moisture condition (“day 1”), the third was misted for two different 8 hour periods two days apart to represent a “moderate” condition (“day 3”), and the last were misted for three eight hour periods on days 1, 3 and 5 to represent a severe condition (“day 5”). All samples were then fully dried, stored for one month, and then tested for embryo activation and viability via falling number and Tetrazolium (2,3,5-Triphenyltetrazolium chloride or TZT) staining (1% by wt), which is used to visualize dehydrogenase enzyme activity. Initially TZT solution is colorless but changes to red when it comes into contact with hydrogen. The TZT test relies on dehydrogenase enzymes to release hydrogen ions which subsequently reduce the colorless tetrazolium salt solution to a red compound called formazan. Living cells turn red while dead cells remain colorless, which allows better visualization of physical changes to the embryo (living cells) that happen during early germination.

Varieties with resistance to PHS (i.e. high falling number and low embryo activation) are favorable in the Mid-Atlantic growing region. Falling number was outsourced and tested by the University of Vermont, and TZT staining was performed at Deer Creek. Germination was also tested in house at Deer Creek using a 100 count (kernels) of barley sample in 4ml petri dishes and either 4ml distilled water (% germination energy), 4ml of 0.3% hydrogen peroxide solution (% germination capcity), or 8ml of distilled water (% water sensitivity).

To address the question “what are the optimum crop management practices to achieve the greatest profitability for malting barley farmers while maintaining grain quality?” a management trial plot was planted October 8, 2015 using Scala (a 2-row malting barley variety). The management trial included 2 replications each of 16 different treatment combinations (2 previous crops x 2 tillages x 4 nitrogen rates). Each rep was 18 feet wide by 30 feet long. The treatment variables were: previous crop (sweet corn, soybeans), tillage (no-till, conventional till), and nitrogen rate (50 lb/ac, 75 lb/ac, 100 lb/ac, 100 lb/a plus a growth regulator). All of the plots received fall fertilizer, herbicide in early spring and fungicide at heading at the same times as the variety trial. The two lower nitrogen rates (50lb/ac and 75lb/ac) were top-dressed on 3/3/16. The higher rates were split applied with 75 lb/ac on 3/3/16 and 25 lb/ac on 3/19/16. The growth regulator was applied on 3/23/16. Field data were recorded from 1 square foot blocks at 3 random locations in each plot (6 data sets per treatment) and include: Winter survival, disease ratings, and heading date. At crop maturity, all grain from each square foot block were hand harvested for collecting data on yield and grain quality (test weight, protein, germination %, DON, kernel size, and visual appearance). Larger grain samples were collected when the crop was harvested for micro malt analysis.

Research results and discussion:

Variety Trial (Figure 1) Variety-Trial-Results-Figure-1

  • All varieties had excellent winter survival and high yields.
  • Two row varieties were shorter and had more tillering (higher head count) than six row varieties.
  1. Two row observations:
    1. Scala – good overall, with noticeably larger kernel size than others.
    2. Violetta – good overall.
    3. TeePee – higher susceptibility to barley yellow dwarf virus.
    4. Wintmalt – later maturity and more uneven growth than others.
  2. Six row observations:
    1. Thoroughbred – good overall.
    2. Maja – thinner kernels than throughbred, some septoria (also powdery mildew susceptible).
  3. Variety trial conclusions:
    1. All six varieties grew and yielded acceptably, but conditions were particularly good for winter barley in 2015/2016. Additional year’s of experience will be need to get more robust variety performance data – in particular on winter hardiness.

Fertility Management Trial (Figure 2) Fertility-Management-Trial-Results-Figure-2

  1. Impact of previous crop
    1. Overall no significant impact on yield or protein content.
    2. No-till following sweet corn had higher DON than tillage after corn, or either tillage after soybean.
  2. Impact of tillage
    1. Tillage after sweet corn reduced yield due to borderline wet conditions at tillage and planting – there was a negative impact on soil drainage that reduced crop condition coming out of winter.
    2. Tillage after sweet corn reduced DON pressure.
  3. Impact of nitrogen rate
    1. Yield increased with nitrogen rate.
    2. Slight but inconsistent protein content increase with nitrogen rate.
  4. Impact of plant growth regulator
    1. Observed decreased height by several inches (no lodging across trial to determine if there was a beneficial impact).
    2. Observed delayed maturity by approximately 2 days.
    3. Decreased yield compared to same rate of nitrogen without PGR.
    4. Decreased kernel size.
  5. Management trial conclusions:
    1. Good soil drainage during the winter is very important to growing quality barley, as was shown by the impact of tillage when soil conditions were wet. Wet fields should be avoided, and no-till should be considered a good option for borderline fields.
    2. Crop rotation trade-offs need to be considered when deciding where to plant barley. Sweet corn (or presumably field corn) prior to barley can increase the potential for DON. Heavy fodder after corn grain has also caused stand issues in other fields we have observed. Soybean stubble is a good option for no-tilling, but barley doesn’t capitalize on residual nitrogen following soybeans they way corn does. In addition, double crop soybeans are a good option after barley, so planting barley into soybean stubble leads to consecutive soybean crops which may increase disease pressure.
    3. When yield potential is good, nitrogen rates similar to feed barley should be acceptable – increasing yield but maintaining suitable protein levels.
    4. Growth regulators may have a use to prevent lodging, but they can have other negative effects on yield, maturity and kernel size.

PHS Screening (Figure 3) PHS-Screening-Results-Figure-3

  1. TZT Scoring
    1. The % of embryo activation measured visually by TZT staining was difficult to interpret because of a limited sample size (n=20).
    2. Acrospire formation in kernel cross-sections, which is a direct visual measurement of embryo activation, was apparent in all varieties at discernable but variable levels.
    3. Maja and Scala demonstrated the largest change in embryo activation after 3 and 5 days of humidity exposure by TZT staining, which could indicate some sensitivity to PHS, although not detected by lower Falling Number.
    4. Thoroughbred showed the lowest level of visual embryo activation, which could suggest a higher level of resistance to PHS than the other test varieties.
  2. Falling Number
    1. All varieties scored higher than 300 minutes by falling number, which is indirectly proportional to the amount of alpha amylase present in a finely ground sample of barley, and thus an indirect measure of PHS. (<300 would indicate significant embryo activation due to PHS)
    2. Violetta had the highest falling number, which suggests the least amount of PHS by variety; however, this was the only variety that trended downwards over the 5-day treatment to humidity. Since alpha amylase is not present in non-germinative or unmalted barley, this difference is not explained by low endogenous levels of the saccharification enzyme.
    3. Overall, none of the varieties demonstrated high susceptibility to PHS as measured by falling number, which suggests they all have some resistance to PHS.
  3. Germination Testing
    1. All varieties had lower germination energy than germination capacity at harvest, which indicates all varieties have some dormancy and PHS resistance.
    2. All varieties also had sensitivity to water, which is typical from barley grown in the mid-Atlantic region, and which is possible to malt if care is used during steeping to not over-expose or “drown” the barley while activating the embryo.
    3. The difference between germination energy and germination capacity was the largest for Thoroughbred, which suggests the most dormancy (and PHS resistance). This is consistent with the TZT observations of embryo activation recorded from this study.

Malt Analysis (Figure 4) Malt-Analysis-Results-Figure-4

  • One ton batches of each test variety were malted at Deer Creek and then analyzed by Hartwick College for malting characteristics.
  • Control samples harvested from a year prior were used for comparison.
  • Maja had the smallest kernel size and lowest protein, although all samples were within an acceptable range for malting quality.
  • Violetta and Wintmalt had the lowest course grind extract and the largest F/C difference, which is most likely due to lower germination percent and not under-modification of the entire population of kernels in the test batch. This is consistent with the lower alpha-amylase levels, which are generated during the malting process from viable kernels. These two varieties also had higher beta glucan, which is a beta-D-glucose polysaccharide that his broken down with the cell wall during germination. 
  • The 2-row control “Charles” had the highest soluble protein and FAN, which are composed of brown color/aroma forming amine compounds. This is consistent with the higher color measured in the control relative to test varieties. Although the same base malting process was used, it is possible this batch had a higher level of modification relative to the controls. It is also possible however that protease or other color forming compounds or enzymes are elevated in this variety at the same level of modification and producing a different array of color and aroma forming melanoidins. This is an interesting question given the % friability was not elevated and the sample moisture was normal for the Charles.
  • Varietal contributions to flavor and leveraging sensory analysis for variety selection is an area for further study.
Research conclusions:

Deer Creek Malthouse has used the results of the project to support recommendations that we give to other farmers growing barley for us. Variety selection and nitrogen rates have been impacted by the trial.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:
  1. A field day was held on June 4, 2016 in conjunction with Philly Beer Week at the Deer Creek farm in Glen Mills, PA. This event was open to the general public and provided an opportunity for farmers, maltsters, agronomists, and brewers to walk the trial plots and learn about the malting operation and SARE research efforts. In addition, a white paper with general crop management best practices for growing malting barley in the Mid-Atlantic was published by Penn State University. Malting-Barley-in-PA
  2. Results from this project were shared at the first ever Philadelphia Grain and Malt Symposium with the general public and the Penn State Extension staff on March 4, 2017. This meeting was hosted by Deer Creek Malthouse, Fair Food Philadelphia, and the University of the Sciences Brewing Science Program.


Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

The project will help other farmers select malt barley varieties with increased confidence, knowing that they can be growth well in the region. It will also help them understand crop management issues of importance to malting barley, such as soil drainage, the previous crop, nitrogen rates and growth regulator usage. Additional variety trials and crop management trials by other farmers or researchers in the region would be valuable. The results would help increase confidence in variety suitability, and refine management practices on different soils in different micro-climates in the region.

Future Recommendations

This project helped gain confidence in malting barley variety selection and helped refine our crop management practices in the Mid-Atlantic. Because of the project, growers will be encouraged to consider planting barley after soybeans, and slightly increase nitrogen rates to maximize yield and quality. Additional year’s of experience with the selected varieties of barley will help determine winter hardiness and PHS resistance, but this project indicated that the varieties we tried have good suitability to this region. Additional work is required to understand the origins of flavor as they relate to barley variety and contribute to craft beer and food. Sensory evaluation and selection of varieties that have good agronomic and malting (chemical) characteristics, could be an important factor in demand for malting barley grown by Mid-Atlantic farmers.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.