Exploring the unknown
Image Credit: Field Crop Development Centre, Lacombe.
Creating new barley varieties can be a deeply personal experience for breeder Patricia Juskiw.
“I always say that these plants are like my children, and I’m disappointed when they don’t do well,” she said, laughing. “And I’m also very happy when they do go to market and become something.”
One of the “children” doing well is the Canmore variety, which, thanks to the help of Alberta Barley, had its marketing rights licensed by Canterra Seeds in 2013. Japan’s Sanwa Shurui partnered with Alberta Barley to find a suitable barley variety to make shochu, a distilled alcoholic beverage that outsells the popular sake in the Land of the Rising Sun.
“It’s a very popular liquor,” said Garson Law, Alberta Barley’s research manager. “But there isn’t enough barley grown in Japan to meet the demand, so there is an excellent opportunity for Canadian barley growers.”
The shochu barley project, funded by Alberta Barley, was an excellent opportunity to combine the Commission’s top priorities: research and market development. Started in the early 2000s, the project aimed to look at 15 to 20 varieties of barley for the spirit each year. While some varieties have shown promise, Canmore is the only one that has reached the level of commercial development.
“The Japanese market represents a potentially very large export opportunity for Canadian barley,” Law said. “The aim of the shochu project is to determine varieties of Canadian barley that are suitable for making shochu.”
Brent Derkatch, director of operations and business development at Canterra Seeds, said Canterra was very impressed with the barley variety.
“The variety has a very strong agronomic package and it yields really well—in fact, it’s one of the highest-yielding barley varieties available,” he said. “It also has very strong straw, meaning it has improved lodging resistance, and this is a very important characteristic for farmers. Additionally, quality tests so far have shown it to have very plump kernels with more starch, which is desirable for shochu manufacturing.”
With the project, Alberta Barley and its partners are developing modern ways to look at a traditional beverage.
“We’re trying to determine what properties create a great-tasting, fermented product,” Law explained. “It’s the big unknown, the crux of our research project.
“This is a centuries-old process that has always been conducted at the local level by independent distilleries. For the first time, we’re looking at the underlying chemistry behind shochu, and that’s exciting,” said Law. “In the past, we didn’t have the analytical capacity to study those components, but now we do.”
By developing different barley varieties, the industry is delivering a product that will meet demand and cater to consumers’ preferences.
“Consumers and end users demand the best—they appreciate quality ingredients more than ever,” said Derkatch. “We are starting to see more interest from companies like Sanwa Shurui to get involved in the development and production of their ingredients—they are also seeking to understand the quality characteristics of their ingredients and how that impacts their product. In the long run, that means varieties like Canmore are viewed more as ingredients and less like commodities.”
Though Canmore was originally tested for both malt and shochu production, it ultimately did not meet the requirements for malt. However, Canmore offers a great mix of starch, protein and other components that make it ideal for distilling into an alcoholic beverage such as shochu.
“I was shocked; I couldn’t believe the alcohol yields we get in this variety. But it also has good-quality traits; it has good pearling traits and good flavours,” said Juskiw. “It really worked out.”
Law explained that while the current market is small, growing barley for shochu could be a good opportunity for farmers.
“It’s a niche market, but there may be farmers out there looking to get into something a bit different.”
But he noted that there needs to be export infrastructure in place in order for growers to benefit.
“Canmore could pave the way for that,” said Law.
As for Juskiw, she believes Canmore wouldn’t be where it is without Alberta Barley’s help.
“Canmore itself, and it being released as a food barley, wouldn’t have been possible without Alberta Barley—they helped it get registered,” she said. “Once it was registered, it was kind of like getting an award of merit—pretty exciting.”
This article was originally published in GrainsWest magazine, the 2015 Food issue.