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U of S crop science develops better tasting beer

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Plant breeding conducted at the University of Saskatchewan Crop Development Centre by barley expert Brian Rossnagel has now given many Saskatchewan growers a lucrative opportunity to partner up with Japanese beer giant Sapporo Breweries.

Rossnagel joined the U of S Department of Plant Sciences as a professor in 1977. He recently announced his retirement, capping off what has been a distinguished career.

His work has focused primarily on the advancement of feed and food barley and oats, breeding more than 80 new varieties through the CDC. Over the past 10 years, more than half of the barley and oats grown in Saskatchewan and Alberta have been the product of Rossnagel’s work.

In 2008, Rossnagel and his colleagues bred a variety of malting barley called CDC Polarstar. It was developed with the help of private funding, as part of a three-way union between the CDC, Sapporo and Biggar, Sask.-based maltster Prairie Malt Limited.

In accordance with the deal, Prairie Malt — jointly owned by grain distributors Viterra and Cargill — contracts Polarstar seed to farmers for a three-year term. Once harvested, the barley is sent to Prairie Malt for malting, and then shipped exclusively to Sapporo.

Rossnagel’s successor and current CDC barley breeder Aaron Beattie says Polarstar produces a beer that is less prone to oxidization, resulting in a substantially longer shelf life.

The Polarstar strain is the product of a back-cross breeding program, in which a familiar variety of barley — CDC Kendall — was altered to lack the enzyme lipoxygenase, also known as lox, and replaced with a natural variant.

“In the malting and brewing process there are fatty acids present,” said Beattie. Lox “will break down these fatty acids, and through a number of bio-chemical steps it leads to compounds which give beer a sort of cardboard flavour.”

According to Beattie, and of course Sapporo, beer yielded from Polarstar barley tastes noticeably fresher than other varieties, even months after being brewed.

Not only is Polarstar more resistant to becoming stale, but the absence of the lox enzyme also enhances the beer’s “foam stability.” Beattie noted, “the Japanese are bigger on having beer with a lot of foam, and also having that foam stick around.”

Last season, Saskatchewan farmers seeded acres of Polarstar commercially for the first time under what is called a Collaborative Contract Farming System. Along with a guaranteed market, the CCFS offers producers a $0.20-per-bushel premium, as long as quality specifications are met.

In return, Sapporo requires producers to keep an extensive production diary throughout the growing season documenting fertility, chemical use, rainfall, growing conditions and crop management strategies.

Moreover, in order to build and maintain a strong business alliance with their producers, Sapporo has annually sent their own barley breeder to visit participating Saskatchewan farms.

This spring, the Polarstar acreage expanded such that it is now the fourth most popular malting barley in Western Canada. However, the exact number of acres is being kept undisclosed by Prairie Malt due to the private nature of the CCFS.

Chantelle Donahue, the Canadian barley supply chain manager at Prarie Malt, says the Polarstar contracts are spread throughout the province, though the majority of acres are in the west. These contracts include areas surrounding Swift Current, Shaunavon, Kindersley, Biggar, Rosetown, Unity and Saskatoon.

“One big thing about this program is that growers really see value in being able to connect with end users — in this case a specific brewery. With the CCFS program, a lot of these growers are a part of the Sapporo-Prairie Malt family and really enjoy growing for these brewers,” said Donahue.

As of yet, through private investment and a closed-loop system with Prairie Malt, Sapporo remains the sole beer-maker with access to the Polarstar variety.

“There is a lot of interest in” Polarstar, said Beattie. “All the other brewers would like to at least see if it does what Sapporo claims it does. But so far no one else has it.

“Actually,” said Beattie, “there is some talk of [Sapporo] wanting to open it up a bit more. They don’t mind the idea of North American brewers having it. They’re most concerned about other Japanese brewers, because that is who they are really competing with. As long as they can prevent them from having it, I think they would be quite happy with that.”

photo: Raisa Pezderic/The Sheaf

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