Heritage Barley Variety Gets Beer Revival in Michigan

With the craft beer industry built on expectations for high quality and unique flavors, and consumers’ desire to be connected to their product, Ashley McFarland feels that there is no better way to give consumers what they want, at least in the state of Michigan, than a heritage barley that is making a comeback.

“Spartan can provide such a unique story for Michigan,” said McFarland, who is the coordinator for the Michigan State University Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center, about the barley type.

Spartan barley started as a hybrid, crossed in 1916 by the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station (MSU), is now headed back into the brew kettle. Head Brewmaster at the New Holland Brewery’s Pub on 8th Street, Steve Berthel, plans to make a pre-prohibition style lager featuring 100 percent Michigan ingredients in November.

“The fact that we all get to be the first to make a batch of beer with this barley strain that hasn’t been used since pre-prohibition, and utilize 100 percent Michigan grown and processed ingredients, is icing on the cake for New Holland’s commitment to allow me to use all Michigan ingredients in my pub beers,” Berthel said in a release.

The Spartan barley was grown at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station southeast of Grand Rapids, Michigan this past season under the supervision of farm manager, Brook Wilke. It was malted by Michigan maltsters Pilot Malt House.


“I’ve been very excited to try my hand at malting Spartan since I first heard about the project from Ashley nearly two years ago,” said head maltster Ryan Hamilton. “In the three years since I’ve become involved in the malting and barley industry in Michigan, the need for locally adapted, locally grown malting barley varieties becomes more apparent every day. Being able to work with a truly “homegrown” barley variety like Spartan is a dream come to life.”

Working with the two-row variety that hasn’t seen much life in 100 years has not come without challenges.

McFarland said although she has heard of the variety from farmers, it was usually grandsons talking about how their grandfathers grew the crop.

Once they realized there was no viable seedstock available in the state,MSUe started working with Dr. Russ Freed at MSU, a former oat and barley breeder, and he was able to put help find a seed bank in Idaho that had some Spartan barley.

They sent Freed five grams, who grew it in his greenhouse on the MSU campus and sent McFarland what he was able to harvest to grow in 2015.

“We conducted a seed increase on that, and then sent the harvest to Arizona to grow through the winter of 2015-16,” she said “The seed came back up to Michigan in the spring of 2016 and we were able to further increase the seed at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station, and in a small plot at our research station in the U.P.”

The 2016 harvest is what was malted and will be brewed with at the New Holland pub on November 11.

Although it is an old variety, and just doesn’t yield as well as modern varieties, it was bred to excel in Michigan weather, which is something McFarland can’t say that for any other variety they  are currently working with.

“One of the struggles for the malting barley and craft malt community in Michigan is finding viable varieties that want to grow and perform well in our climate,” she noted “Most varieties are bred for the arid west, and when you grow them in our more humid climates, we run into issues like disease and sprout. Spartan barley often has too high of protein, however, so it is not a perfect variety, but if maltsters know how to manage the high protein, I think Spartan presents a very interesting and unique story that brewers can pass on to their customers.”

In the malt house, Spartan has already proven to be as unique and distinctive as the story behind it, Hamilton said. Spartan’s seemingly inherent high protein content is a challenge but one that can be managed through the malting process, he added.

“By keeping germination temperatures low to impede protein modification, thereby keeping protein-induced haze in the finished product to a minimum. Some benefits to elevated protein levels are ample supplies of enzymes and free amino nitrogen (FAN) that are critical to brewhouse processing and fermentation,” he said. “High levels of soluble protein aren’t undesirable if the intended brewing application involves large amounts of adjunct sugars derived from corn or rice, for example. Modern malting barley varieties with inherently lower levels of protein are more suitable to all-malt brewing, like craft beer.”

Another critical point involved in malting Spartan is that it requires a longer germination period to achieve full modification than modern barley varieties.

“Spartan comes from an era when green malt was allowed to germinate five to seven days, or even longer, before kilning,” Hamilton explained. “Modern malting barley varieties, Pinnacle for example, may only require three to four days of germination before full modification is achieved and the green malt is sent to the kiln.”

Neither of these factors came to Hamilton as a surprise though.

“A knowledge of historical malting and brewing practices has certainly been crucial in adapting our process to best suit Spartan’s unique character,” he said. “While Spartan may present challenges in the field, the maltings, and the brewhouse, the malt tastes great.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *