Researchers at the James Hutton Institute and leading commercial breeding companies are working to improve the quality of winter barley for malting purposes, in a bid to address the concerns of maltsters, brewers and distillers about the long-term sustainability of the barley crop.

The £2 million, five-year IMPROMALT project, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Scottish Government and HGCA in a LINK project, combines the research expertise of the James Hutton Institute and the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) with the breeding skills and resources of KWS UK, Limagrain, RAGT, Saaten Union, Secobra and Syngenta, as well as the malting and distilling expertise of the Maltsters’ Association of Great Britain (MAGB) and the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI).

The project, managed by Mylnefield Research Services, the commercial arm of the James Hutton Institute, aims to carry out a ‘targeted improvement’ of winter barley in order to incorporate the better malting quality characteristics of the spring crop. If successful, the project could be the single biggest achievement in winter malting barley genetics since the breeding of the Maris Otter variety in the 1960s.

Bill Thomas, Ph.D., principal investigator, said: “Whilst plant breeders have previously tried to add spring quality attributes into winter barley, they have relied on chance events to assemble the right genes, which is like searching for a needle in a haystack when the crops differ at thousands of genetic loci. But we now have the knowledge and tools to introduce spring attributes into winter barley in a highly targeted manner to test the hypothesis that this will improve winter malting quality.

“Distillers can produce 16 more litres of raw spirit per tonne of malt on average from spring barley than they can from winter barley. For an industry that used approximately 600,000t of barley during the 2012 harvest, this is a highly significant difference in production efficiency.”

The supply of malting barley has recently been beset by seasonal problems in many parts of Europe, and within the UK, drought and wet conditions for harvests 2011 and 2012 respectively have resulted in reduced barley crop quality. Predicted climate change scenarios suggest weather fluctuations are likely to become more frequent and will affect the spring crop much more than the winter crop, which can escape the worst effects of summer drought or a late harvest through a much earlier maturity.

James Brosnan, Ph.D., research manager at SWRI and chair of the project steering group, commented: “The increased demand for Scotch whisky means distillers require an easily sourced, sustainable supply of quality malting barley. The greater yield of the winter barley crop could mean that more of the Scottish crop could meet the distilling demand, provided that the quality gap can be bridged. Whilst winter barley might therefore provide a more consistent and larger supply, its use by distillers is minimal due to the reduced quality level of the winter crop relative to modern spring barleys.”