Sunday 27 June 2021

How to breed new barley varieties

Finally, years after learning how new hop varieties are bred I learnt about barley breeding and how the seeds breed true. I don't think I've been as happy to hear anything since I learnt the invisible etchings of Salvador Dali were safe. 

With hops each new seed is a unique individual and so in effect a new variety, established hop varieties essentially being clones made by taking cuttings from a single female plant. Barley though is clearly grown from seed so how does that work? Read on and see:

Various methods can be used for developing new varieties of plants:

  • Cross breeding
  • Hybridisation
  • Mutation
  • Genetic Modification

We were told that breeding is easy, but the punch line is that making new varieties might be easy but making new varieties better than the old ones is a lot more difficult. 

The registration system is important because unless your variety can get official approval (Agiculture and Horticulture Development Board and Malting Barley Committee) it is unlikely to go far. 

Plants are selected for a number of criteria, but particularly harvest yield. 

Non-GN (glycosidic nitrile) is important for malts used in distilling because of concerns it can produced the carcinogenic ethyl carbamate during distillation.

Barley plants have male and female parts. The first stage of making a cross is to cut the male parts off a plant to prevent it self pollinating. 

Then pollen is taken from the other plant involved in the cross and used to fertilise the first one. 

As Confucius says, in breeding filial generations of offspring are numbered F1, F2, F3 for first, second and third generations, etc. 

Each cross will make 500-1000 sibling seeds, with the same parents but different combinations of genes, 

These will be crossed again, giving move diverse gene combinations but also fixing diversity by inbreeding to get homozygous plants which will breed true due to having the same alleles for each gene.

The best plants will be chose to proceed with for further breding trials.

Seeds will be sent to New Zealand to speed up the process, rather than waiting another year to plant. 

By this stage only plants breeding true will be moved forward in the trials.

One quick test if the plant will be a good variety is if it makes 25g of seeds. Laboratory and genetic tests will also be used to look for desired traits in the plant. 

Larger scale trails will be carried out:

100kg of seed will be obtained from these. From these further tests, including micromalting will be carried out. 

The breeding and selection of new barley varieties is in many ways similar to how new hop varieties are made, except for the self pollinated inbreeding to get homozygous plants that will breed true from seed. Tissue culture can also be used instead of self pollination as haploid pollen can be used to make homozygous diploid plants. 

Friday 25 June 2021

Where's the wild beer?

Something that crops up occasionally is people mistakenly claiming beer can be made by adding cereal grains to water. The latest example of this was from an article on psychedelic pints, which may perhaps explain some of the outlandish claims made:

It is of course nonsense you can make beer by throwing grains into water. So maltsters and brewers can rest easy in their beds! You might perhaps get the grain to germinate, so at one point it will in effect be green malt, but even mixing green malt with water won't give you beer. You might be able to get a mouldy mess, but I shudder to think what state the water would have to be in to make this safer to drink. 

It has occurred to me that if some sort of primitive beer is this easy to make then why don't we see it naturally forming on a regular basis? If ancients could make beer by simply getting wild grains they'd picked wet then surely now grains are farmed on an industrial scale shouldn't it be happening all the time? When barley fields are flattened after heavy storms shouldn't there be reports of beer puddles forming? Or if a grain silo or lorry has a leaky roof shouldn't spontaneous outbreaks of brewing happen? Come to think of it if it was that bleedin' easy why don't teenagers desperate to get hold of some alcohol mix wholemeal flour and water a few days before parties?

Making alcoholic drinks from sugary fruit is relatively simply, and I have seen reports of animals getting drunk on rotting fruit so perhaps naturally created 'wild' wine does exist. Turning starchy grains into something alcoholic is far more complicated though (that whole malting and brewing process) and it is human ingenuity and our dedication to getting off our heads that we have to thank for beer. 

Saturday 19 June 2021

Where is the craft?

Whilst listening to Pete Brown talk about his book Craft: An Argument the term craft did, briefly, make sense. But his non-defined definition and the need for it have slipped from my mind and for the life of me I just can't see it any more. 

In America, where it all started as a reaction to the bland products produced by multi-national brewers, the definition of craft brewery has been changed and changed again until about all that's left is "not more than 25% owned by a multi-national brewery". I believe the largest craft brewery in the States now sells more cider and alcopops than their rather dull flagship lager. 

As to actual craft beers many of them sound more like alcopops now anyway, and certainly some craft brewers have embraced exogenous enzymes, bollocks ingredients including actual bollocks, and genetically modified yeasts (something multi-national brewers have never dared use). I'm not going to make any moral judgement but I can't see where the craft is. 

The standard bearers of craft beer in Britain have always been Brewdog and it's been obvious for years that they're tossers. Recently their ten year plan was revealed and they're going to focus on producing lager because they want to be bigger than Heineken. Can anyone tell me how becoming a giant lager selling multi-national is craft?

Their response to revelations about their awful toxic work culture has been straight out of the corporate playbook. A woman has been made chair of the board. Hurrah! A woman who happens to be boss of a venture capitalist firm, because nothing says craft like having a venture capitalist in charge. And to go with it there's the usual HR guff that I hope will have their employees stampeding to join the IWW

I've long thought that Orwell would have a few words to say about Brewdog:

 “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” 

But seems Nietzsche would too: 

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster."

I can't recall William Morris promoting a toxic growth obsessed work culture though. Craft: it's all bollocks really, isn't it?