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Top Crop Summit speaker series: Adding value to the Canadian malting barley industry

April 14, 2023  By Bruce Barker

Aaron Beattie.

Aaron Beattie received his PhD from the University of Saskatchewan in 2006 and has been the barley breeder at the Crop Development Centre, University of Saskatchewan since 2010. At the Top Crop Summit in Saskatoon Feb. 23, he provided an overview of western Canadian barley production and examples of traits that are the focus of current research which have, or may eventually have, value to the industry.

Canada produces 8.5 million tonnes of barley annually, on approximately seven million acres primarily in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Forty-five to 50 per cent of the seeded acreage is two-row malt varieties.

For the crop year 2020-21, 2.8 million tonnes of malting barley was purchased by Canadian malting and grain companies, with 1.1 million tonnes used by the domestic malting industry, and 1.7 million tonnes exported, mainly to China. The total value of malting barley to the Canadian economy is estimated at $13.6 billion.


There are four large malting companies in Western Canada, including Canada Malt in Calgary, Rahr Malt at Alix, Alta., Prairie Malt at Biggar, Sask., and Malteurop in Winnipeg. In addition, there are several small and micro-malting companies on the Prairies.

The main barley breeding programs in Canada are the Crop Development Centre and Limagrain in Saskatoon, Field Crop Development Centre at Lacombe, Alta., and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada at Brandon, Man. Varieties are also tested in Western Canada from Secobra in France, Syngenta U.K. and Ackermann in Germany. 

Barley breeding objectives include good agronomics focussed on high yield, lodging resistance and early maturity. Disease resistance to Fusarium head blight, spot blotch, net blotch, scald, smuts and stem rust are also important. Grain quality traits of thousand kernel weight, plumpness/thins and uniformity are important to maltsters. Additionally, specific malt quality characteristics are required by brewers. 

An example of a disease-resistant trait that benefits the industry was the development of novel scald resistance. A barley researcher in New Zealand, Dr. Richard Pickering, found resistance in the wild progenitor of barley, Hordeum spontaneum. He developed a line called 145L2, which was tested at Dr. Kelly Turkington’s disease nursery at AAFC Lacombe. Over six years of testing from 2008 to 2014, the line showed good resistance to the disease. 

Subsequent DNA analysis identified the source of resistance, and genetic markers were identified on chromosome 6H. A molecular marker assay was developed that allows breeders to identify this gene in breeding lines. This speeds line development and costs about $1 per data point compared to $5 to $10 per barley line to screen in a disease nursery. This type of genetic breeding is used for many different diseases, and allows breeders to more rapidly and cheaply incorporate new resistant genes into new varieties.

Another value-added breeding effort saw CDC and Sapporo Breweries co-operate to improve the shelf life of their beer. The presence of an enzyme called lipoxygenase (LOX-1) is produced during the malting process, and its presence can result in the breakdown of flavour and foam stability.

Sapporo Brewers evaluated 1,152 barley land races from the Research Institute for Bioresources at Okayama University, Japan and found six land races with no LOX-1 activity. Genetic analysis developed a molecular marker for the LOX-less gene. CDC incorporated the LOX-less trait into CDC Kendall to produce CDC PolarStar. Sapporo brewing trials found that CDC PolarStar had a fresher taste for a longer period of time and improved foam stability. Since then, two malting varieties with the LOX-less trait have been released: CDC PlatinumStar in 2014 and CDC Goldstar in 2017.

The CDC has also investigated different methods of assessing lodging resistance. They are looking at the resistance force of stem and roots, flexural strength of the stem and assessing the seminal root angle and root system “solidity” as they relate to lodging. 

Hulless malt barley has been a focus at CDC for over 20 years. The benefit to the malting industry is that hulless varieties have a very high fine extract percentage, which is a measure of how much alcohol can be produced per unit of malt. High fine extract levels mean more beer per unit of malt. One experimental hulless line developed at CDC had a fine extract percentage of 90.2 compared to that of AAC Synergy hulled variety at 82.9 per cent. 

Over the last 20 years, new varieties developed in Western Canada like AAC Synergy and CDC Fraser are yielding 14 per cent more than the old standard AC Metcalfe. CDC Churchill is even higher yielding at 17 per cent over AC Metcalfe.

On the quality side, new varieties are lower in kernel protein content, higher in friability and fine extract and lower in beta-glucan – all important traits for the malting and brewing industries.


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