OSU creates new barley varieties for food, beer and forage

handful of barley
Barley is harvested at OSU's test plots in Pendleton. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum.)

Varieties are evaluated for yield, disease resistance, cold tolerance and baking quality

Barley has been an underappreciated cousin of wheat, even though it is one of the world's oldest cultivated crops. But that's starting to change amid a growing interest in microbrews and whole-grain diets. Helping lead the way is its cheerleader, OSU, which is developing new varieties of this superfood. The university released 12 new varieties between 1993 and 2012.

One of them is Alba, a variety with excellent disease resistance that thrives in high rainfall areas. Another, Full Pint, has captured the imagination of craft brewers due to the unique flavors its malt imparts to quality beers. For research purposes, OSU plans to release Streaker, the first naked food barley adapted to the Pacific Northwest and one that could rival oatmeal as a breakfast staple for health-conscious consumers.

Researchers are also trying to identify genes that allow barley to withstand low temperatures, resist disease and survive with little water and nitrogen. They’re also looking for genes responsible for malting quality, nutritional properties and flowering time. In plots in Pendleton, OSU is seeing if barley can compete economically with wheat to give farmers a different source of income. It has found that some varieties can equal or surpass some types of wheat on a pound-by-pound basis.

Additionally, OSU is testing how its new cultivars hold up in the kitchen by developing new products with them like granola, popped barley, tortillas, pretzels, baguettes, pita breads, sourdoughs and focaccia. Barley breakfast bars, made with Streaker barley, are on the menu in the Bethel School District.

Barley was the world’s fourth most-produced cereal in terms of volume in 2012. Oregon's farmers produced $24 million of it in 2012.

Read more about OSU's research on barley in an article from Oregon's Agricultural Progress magazine.

Sources: OSU barley breeder Pat Hayes; U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization; USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

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