Barley breeders' beer burden by Brendon Cant

"Malt squad... You're under arrest... We've had a report of a flat beer in Murwillumbah!"

WHILE AUSTRALIANS recline in beer gardens around the country, contemplating the glistening gold, creamy head and refreshing effervescence of their favourite brew, barley breeders are sweating on every nuance and detail of the drinker's experience.

So fussy are our beer drinkers' tastes that breeding barley to suit th~ malting market has proved as difficult for our scientists as it has for the rest of us to go without a regular sample of their best products.

Until now, for instance, WA's most popular malting barley variety, Stirling, has been unsurpassed since it was first sown in 1983.

Tradition dictates that the foam rings left on a drinker's glass should reveal how many sips it took to empty the vessel. A long list of similar forensic proof may be needed to suitably impress the breweries about the malting credentials of any new barley.

On top of agronomic, disease and pest considerations, new contenders must satisfy 35 other quality traits to qualify as a malting barley - that's the challenge. Many of these qualities are not completely understood, which leaves breeders lamenting over their barley's malting performance just as we lament over a flat ale.

Size matters too

Grain plumpness is also a key to malting quality. Enzymes from under the grain skin break down starch during the malting process, but if the grain is too big, the ratio of enzymes is not sufficient to complete the malting process in an economic time (around six days).