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UW Scientists Test Malting Barley

November 23, 1999

MADISON, Wis. (AP) _ A team of University of Wisconsin researchers may be well on the way to settling the eternal ``taste great-less filling″ debate among beer drinkers.

Scientists at the Madison laboratory test thousands of varieties of malting barley each year to determine whether they will produce beer that both looks and tastes good.

Results of how varieties fare are sent to the American Malting Barley Association in Milwaukee, which works with most major breweries to set industry standards for beer ingredients.

``It’s important for the brewer, both for efficiency in the brewing process and for the final product _ the taste and flavor of the beer _ to have a high quality malting barley,″ said Scott Heisel, the association’s technical director.

Before Prohibition, brewing companies knew which barley varieties made the best beer. But when the ban was lifted after about 13 years, brewers needed a way to once again pinpoint the best barley out of the varieties that farmers had been growing for animal feed, said David Peterson, the lab’s research leader.

The lab is still needed 60 years later as researchers test varieties that have been altered with disease-fighting genes, Peterson said. One enemy is a fungal disease called scab, which cost farmers an estimated $2.6 billion in lost crops from 1991 through 1997. The disease produces toxins that can make barley unsuitable for beer.

``Biotechnology doesn’t solve the whole problem,″ Peterson said. ``It doesn’t replace the testing and evaluation.″

Only one or two of the 4,000 varieties the lab tests each year gets the stamp of approval from researchers and goes on to be grown by farmers and used by brewers.

The malting barley association gives barley growers a list of recommended varieties that have been endorsed by brewers and researchers, information that is crucial to the $175 billion a year malt beverage industry, said Mike Davis, the association’s president.

The association also provides $180,000 a year for research at the lab, about 15 percent of its overall budget. The rest of the lab’s budget comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The lab’s four scientists and 20 technicians work in a two-story building with an attached greenhouse. Labs stocked with beakers, petri dishes, test tubes and researchers in white lab coats share space with a five-gallon brewery that can turn the malted barley they study into beer.

Researchers fire up the brewery about once a year to experiment with some malting barley varieties. And even though the taste of the finished product is not included in their scientific recommendations, they do get to take a sip or two.

Mike Marinac, a lab technician who analyzes malted barley samples, said friends assume his job involves more recreation than science.

But Marinac, who has worked at the lab for 11 years, said he gets a kick out of the reaction from people when he tells them what he does for a living.

``I look forward to when I’m out on a Friday night and telling people I test beer _ for the government,″ Marinac said. ``They tend to think that it has a lot to do with drinking beer, which I like to do after work.″

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