Jamie Sherman, MSU barley breeder, talks about her upcoming lines at field days.

For malting barley producers, there may be a future in direct contracts with craft breweries across the state.

According to the Montana Brewers Association, there are some 68 craft breweries and 15 distilleries throughout the state. There are more in the western part of the state, but more breweries are coming on board all the time.

The barley program at Montana State University has been breeding new varieties for malting barley producers.

“With a malt contract you can make more money,” said Jamie Sherman, Montana State University barley breeder, to producers at Sidney, Mont.

Sherman is planning a new malting barley release this winter.

“The program plans to release a line that maintains plumps and low protein under more environmental conditions, even with higher nitrogen and with lower water,” Sherman said.

The barley breeders want to see if these low-protein lines could provide quality stability, which is what the program is looking for.

For example, Hockett, a two-row, low-protein malting barley, has been very stable under dryland conditions. The variety was released by the Montana Ag Experiment Station (MAES) 10 years ago.

“Low protein is made by extending the time of grain fill so more starch is put down,” she said.

New Malt Quality Lab will help

One issue Montana malting barley producers have come up against is with their contracts with big companies.

“Sometimes the big companies offer a contract one year and the next year, they don’t offer a contract. That’s difficult for a grower because you need to know if you can contract your crop in advance,” Sherman said. “You don’t want your crop sold out from under you. It is a hardship – plus there’s the loss of income.”

Sherman believes the new Malt Quality Lab will be a major help to malt barley growers looking for contracts from small craft breweries. One example is Bridger Brewing, which made its wet hop ale this year from locally-grown malt barley from the Gallatin Valley.

“The Lab has been helping some craft malt companies get going in Montana,” she said. “We hope they will get to be big enough that they will contract directly with growers and that will help the feast-or-famine issue.”

The Malt Quality Lab, in the Plant BioSciences Building on MSU campus, accepts samples of barley and malt.

Barley is tested for grain moisture, protein content, plumpness, kernel weight, germination energy, falling number and DON.

Barley and malt must meet strict quality criteria to work for various industries, whether it is the malster wanting to make barley into a value-added malt, or a brewer wanting to craft a beverage from the malt.

With the lab's testing, MSU can improve malt quality, as well as agronomic performance of malt barley varieties.

“The lab helps us select for qualities important to the end-use market,” Sherman said.

The lab was funded through the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, with some help from the National Brewers Association and MAES.

“With all the possible barley breeding crosses and barley lines, an analysis of barley malt earlier on in the process guides us to selecting genetic traits for flavor and other qualities,” Sherman said.

Malsters can also ask for quality tests, with a fee for the service, and recently, the lab also expanded testing services to several other states and into Canada.