Production

Fresh Crop

Ian Wisniewski looks at how companies are developing new barley varieties
By Ian Wisniewski
The usual question when discussing barley is whether individual varieties can influence the character of the new make spirit, and opinions on this subject vary.But there are also other ways in which distillers, along with maltsters and farmers, appraise what a barley variety has to offer.And that’s down to performance.Newer varieties offer an improved yield of alcohol per tonne in the distillery, greater ease of malting for maltsters, while farmers gain an increased yield per acre, together with stronger disease resistance.Sounds great. But the route to market for a new barley variety can be up to 12 years from inception.The ultimate goal is appearing on an annual list of approved varieties, published by the IBD (Institute of Brewing and Distilling).Meanwhile, years of trials makes developing a new barley variety an expensive venture, requiring significant financial investment by plant breeders.“We have very active commercial plant breeders in the United Kingdom developing new barley varieties, and they may each bring two to three new varieties into the evaluation procedure each year,” says Dr David Griggs, chairman, IBD malting barley committee.Plant breeders have plenty of motivation to invest in new varieties.“There’s a considerable amount of money to be made from a barley variety which could be on the market for around 10 years, because plant breeders receive a royalty on the sale of seed. Once a variety receives full IBD approval then it’s full steam ahead and it becomes much more available,” adds Dr David Griggs.Plant breeders are initially required to submit a variety into statutory testing, before it can be added to the National List, which stipulates varieties that farmers can grow.These initial tests are conducted on the basis of ‘DUS.’ This stands for ‘Distinctive,’ ie. that the new variety can be distinguished from other varieties; ‘Uniformity,’ that all plants are the same height, etc; and ‘Stability,’ in the sense of offering consistent on-going performance.Further tests for ‘VCU,’ meaning ‘Value For Cultivation And Use,’ establish whether the agronomic yield can at least match that of existing varieties, while also offering additional benefits to end users.The better varieties which pass these tests are promoted to the HGCA Recommended List, and then subjected to a minimum of two years of further tests by the IBD.“In 2006 approximately 35 varieties of spring barley were being tested. At this stage we’re not sure whether a variety will be suitable. The leading, existing barley varieties are also grown as a ‘control,’ and to provide a point of reference. At this stage varieties don’t have names, only codes, which are assigned to them by the plant breeders,” says Dr David Griggs.Grain harvested at the end of the first year of the IBD’s two year trial is distributed to commercial maltsters for micro-malting tests.Two groups conduct these tests, the English and Scottish Micromalting Groups, with the English maltsters receiving samples from English trial sites, while Scottish maltsters receive samples from Scottish trial sites.Maltsters pass on data, and their views on the data, to the English and Scottish Working Party’ and, ultimately, the Malting Barley Committee, and this determines whether a barley variety reaches the next level of the selection process.“We do some of the research work in conjunction with other maltsters, and then we all share our data.“Micro-malting gives a resonable indication of the potential a new barley variety may have for commercial use.“Once we’ve got through the micro-malting stage we have commercial scale trials, which is at least 100 tons, and then we agree with a distilling company to do a test at their distillery, there’s a standard form for distillers to fill in to record the data, against an accepted standard,” says Mark Kinsman of Baird’s Malt.Results of the trials conducted by maltsters and distillers are submitted to the IBD.Barley varieties are initially given Provisional Approval 1 by the IBD, followed by Provisional Approval 2 the following year or Full Approval, if successful test results warrant this.However, gaining Provisional Approval 1 doesn’t guarantee Full Approval, as further tests are conducted before a barley variety gains Full Approval.Two varieties, Publican and Tartan, both currently have Provisional Approval 1.Meanwhile, for the 2008 harvest, the IBD’s list of varieties with Full Approval for distilling are Optic, Cocktail, Decanter, Troon, Oxbridge and Appaloosa (all varieties of spring barley).“Whichever varieties are valid go onto the list, there’s no limit on the number we approve,” says Dr David Griggs.And having gone through the long process of gaining Full Approval, the list is reviewed annually, which means that any variety can also be removed.Naming a new variety may seem an entirely straightforward process, but there are also certain parameters for plant breeders. “Naming is a separate issue and not an easy task, as names that have been used for any other crop cannot be used.“That’s why plant breeders don’t name varieties until they’re confident of success, as if the varieties get rejected the plant breeders also loose the right to use that name again.It’s effectively the same as registering a trademark, as they’re getting a payment back on it.“Plant breeders can get royalties once National List status has been achieved, and they can be earning from a new variety even while it’s still being trialled,” says Dr Griggs.While there is a broad choice of barley varieties with full approval, practicalities also help to determine what’s available.“We are currently malting three main varieties, including Optic.“We can’t buy too many varieties as this presents issues with storage and segregation,” says Mark Kinsman.Optic (originally developed in the mid- 1990s) has been the leading barley variety since the year 2000.Currently accounting for more than 50 per cent of the market, its market share peaked at around 65 per cent in 2003.But with newer varieties challenging Optic, the obvious question is, how much longer can it stay at the top?“Two years ago Optic had effectively been written off and its number one position by tonnage expected to be replaced by a newer variety.“But last year was a difficult harvest and it stood up to the weather very well, some newer varieties didn’t stand up so well to pre harvest weather conditions in Scotland, so growers opted to stay with Optic as their main malting variety.“Although Optic is still popular with maltsters and distillers the variety continues to be of concern to the barley growers as its natural disease resistance to mildew is breaking down, and it’s becoming more expensive to produce a competitive agronomic yield,” says Mark Kinsman.The yield is another significant area in which Optic is being challenged.“In terms of the agronomic yield, Optic may yield around 0.5 tonnes per hectare less than Oxbridge and Appaloosa.“This is the kind of differential you can see,” says Simon Barry of Highland Grain, a Scottish specialist malting barley cooperative, which supplies commercial maltings and distilleries.So, where do we go from here, and which varieties are tipped to be the next market leaders?“In Scotland we think Oxbridge will be taking the major tonnage, perhaps followed by Appaloosa, but this depends on those varieties agronomic performance this harvest in the first instance, and later commercial malting and distilling performance,” says Mark Kinsman.Simon Barry adds, “ I think Optic will continue for a year or two, though we’re seeing divergence into Oxbridge and Appaloosa, so we may see Optic decline.“2006 was a difficult season with a difficult summer, but all varieties came good in the end.“Oxbridge was about as consistent as Optic, but from our perspective Appaloosa went very well, and we’ve grown more this year.2007 has been equally challenging and this could be the watershed.“If Oxbridge and Appaloosa show the consistency of quality, and consistency of yield that exceeds Optic’s yield, we will see Optic decline rapidly next year.”