Barley is the new hops

FARGO - While hops may get all the credit for flavor in your favorite IPA, brewing experts say it's malt's time to shine. Malt is made from barley - a major North Dakota crop. With a growing craft brewing industry nationwide, there's a renewed fo...

599107+031014.N.FF_.ndsubrewing 1.jpg
Paul Schwarz, professor of Plant Sciences at North Dakota State University, explains the uses for the brewing lab located at Harris Hall. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO – While hops may get all the credit for flavor in your favorite IPA, brewing experts say it’s malt’s time to shine.

Malt is made from barley – a major North Dakota crop. With a growing craft brewing industry nationwide, there’s a renewed focus on types of malt used for beer.

Factors such as the variety of barley, how it’s malted and if the malt is roasted, impart different flavors in the beer. And many brewers are turning to experts in North Dakota State University’s renowned barley and malt sciences program for advice.

Paul Schwarz, a plant sciences professor at NDSU who specializes in malting barley quality, sees a lot of new enthusiasm for barley from the craft industry.

“It is really fun to see this new group,” he said.


While many consumers and brewers think of hops as the primary driver of flavor, Chris Swersey said the Brewers Association, which represents more than 2,000 breweries, is hoping to change that.

Since craft brewing took off starting in the 1970s and early ’80s, hops production has changed tremendously, Swersey said, adding that the industry could have a similar impact on malt production.

While craft breweries produce only about 6.5 percent of the beer consumed in the U.S., they’re using about 25 percent of all malt produced here.

“Craft is growing really fast and gobbling up more and more of the malt,” Swersey said.

The nation’s largest brewers stay true to their traditional flavors with the malt they use, but craft brewers are looking for more variety.

“The kinds of malt that craft brewers need – that 25 percent – is very different from what’s needed from the really big brewers that make the lion’s share of the product in the country,” he said.

While brewers have a major influence on the type of hops grown in the U.S., they’re more removed from barley producers.

That’s why the Brewers Association developed a white paper to share with breeders, growers, maltsters and researchers about the industry’s barley and malt needs.


Swersey would not disclose any of the paper’s findings before its release date, but he said it outlines ideal characteristics that could be achievable in the next decade or so.

Schwarz said he sees a lot of industry interest in returning to older varieties of barley, sometimes referred to as “heritage barley.”

Last summer, they set up a small nursery in Dickinson to showcase historical barleys, he said.

He also pointed to a craft malting trend taking place on the East Coast. There, brewers are turning to locally grown barley and locally produced craft malts in their beers.

While colleges and the beer industry may seem like strange bedfellows, brewing sciences have been a part of NDSU’s barley program since the ’60s.

NDSU became a hub for barley experts because North Dakota has traditionally been the nation’s top barley producer, Schwarz said. In 2012, North Dakota growers planted more acres of barley than any other state, according to a 2013 report from the American Malting Barley Association.

The school has a breeding program for barley varieties and quality lab to evaluate malt characteristics. Through field schools in the summer, the Institute of Barley and Malt Sciences at NDSU hosts industry professionals and connects them directly with producers.

On the West Coast, where craft brewing has an even greater footprint, colleges not only lend their expertise to the industry but prepare students for careers in brewing.


Oregon State University started its fermentation sciences department, which focuses on beer, wine and artisan cheeses, in the 1990s, said Bob McGorrin, chairman of the food science and technology department.

Enrollment there has increased dramatically in the past 10 years, he said.

Students master the underlying chemistry, biology and physics behind the production of beer, wine and cheeses.

Those who study brewing have the chance to experiment in the school’s brewhouse – practical experience that industry employers are happy to see on top of their food science background.

“The industry folks are very pleased that there are programs that can train students for their needs,” McGorrin said.

A handful of graduate students in NDSU’s cereal science program focus on malting and brewing science. As the craft brewing industry has grown, so has student interest in the graduate program, Schwarz said.

The growing craft industry might mean a better job market for graduates looking to work at a brewery.

“Today I think it’s a little tougher for students to find jobs with the big companies because of consolidation,” Schwarz said.


599108+031014.N.FF_.ndsubrewing 2.jpg
Ramon Huerta and Paul Schwarzlook over a sample of malted barley before removing the rootlets in a lab at Harris Hal at North Dakota State University. David Samson / The Forum

What To Read Next
Get Local