Cornell researchers boost barley, brewing industry in New York

ITHACA, N.Y. – The start of Prohibition in 1919 ended the party for more than just beer-drinkers: It also shut down New York’s once-thriving malt barley industry. When legal drinking returned in 1933, growers in the western United States dominated the market for malting barley, which – along with hops, yeast and water – is used to brew beer.

Now, researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University are leading a multi-year project aimed at bringing malting barley back to New York and helping farmers take advantage of the economic opportunities offered by the crop. This work is supported by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and the Genesee Valley Regional Market Authority.

Consumer interest in small-scale craft breweries has fueled interest in getting New York farm ingredients into beers brewed in this state. In 2012, New York state legislators eased the path for smaller breweries to craft and sell their beers. Seeking to encourage economic development for farmers as well as brewers, the Farm Brewery Law requires “farm brewers” to use an increasing percentage of New York-grown ingredients in their beverages: 20 percent through 2018, 60 percent by 2019 and 90 percent by 2024.

“For farmers, if they have to sell their crop for animal feed, it’s worth half or less what they could get in selling to a brewer,” said Gary Bergstrom, professor in the Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Section in Cornell’s School of Integrative Plant Science.

A team led by Mark Sorrells, professor in the Plant Breeding and Genetics Section of SIPS, pinpointed the most promising malting barley cultivars for New York’s climate. They gathered the best varieties from around the world and planted them in nurseries in five locations across the state. This initial work helped determine which varieties could be made to work here and which to avoid. The next step is breeding and selecting genetic varieties specifically for New York. Sorrells’ program is called “Born, Bred and Brewed in New York.”

Jeffrey Trout, fourth-generation owner of Poormon Farms in Seneca County, saw malt barley as an opportunity to diversify his farm and contribute to the rural economy. He started growing malt barley in 2012, and lauded the work of Cornell Cooperative Extension for providing training and networking opportunities.

“This industry could not move ahead as quickly or as thoroughly without Cornell’s dedicated efforts,” Trout said.

Erin Tones is marketing and logistics manager of the just-opened 1886 Malt House in Fulton – one of a dozen new malt houses opened in New York since passage of the Farm Brewery Law.

Cornell-led conferences on malting grain varieties and agronomic practices have been “key to the growers’ success, which is necessary for our success,” Tones said. “Cornell has been instrumental in getting this project off the ground.”

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews. For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.