Michigan craft brewery first to use 100-year-old barley in limited-edition lager

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

After being revived by MSU, Spartan barley is making its way back into beer this month
After being revived by MSU, Spartan barley is making its way back into beer this month

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New Holland Brewing Co. will be Michigan’s first craft brewer to revive the use of Spartan barley, a relic grain that has just started sprouting up in the state after roughly 50 years off the grid.

The Michigan brewery is releasing a limited-edition lager using Spartan barley, available in the Lansing, Michigan, area at the end of November.

What’s old is new again

Michigan State University (MSU) resurrected Spartan barley in 2015, after it was first developed in 1916 by MSU plant breeder F.A. Spragg, and was bred throughout Michigan. At that time, it was used to brew beer, and became first commercially available in 1919.

By 1933, approximately 30,000 Michigan farmers were growing it. The sparse grain eventually fell off the map and disappeared from crop fields in Michigan and the upper Midwest region by the 1950s and 60s as newer, higher yielding varieties took its place.

“For at least 50 years this barley hasn’t really been grown in the state, so now we’re trying to bring it back,”​ Ashley McFarland, upper peninsula research and extension center coordinator with MSU, told BeverageDaily.

From five grams to beer yielding quantities

Fast forward to a few years ago when McFarland and her team were looking at different malt and barley varieties, and heard multiple times about the Spartan barley through word of mouth.

“When we were going around the state and talking about our research and the different varieties we were growing, a lot of conversations started up on ‘Did you guys know there was a Spartan variety at one time’?”​ McFarland said.

“A lot of older generations of farmers were telling us this, so it really piqued our interest to try to track down some of the Spartan barley.”

The Spartan barley was traced back to a seedbank in Idaho by researcher Russel Feed, PhD, and he was sent five grams of the barley and started growing it in a greenhouse. According to McFarland, the Spartan barley germinated “very well” ​and eventually the yields began mounting.

Pilot Malt House in Byron Center, Michigan, turned Spartan’s raw harvested grain, delivered to the malt house in massive bags weighing up to one ton each, into malt for beer.

McFarland said the yield is now in the 20 to 30-bushel range.

“Your yield is about half compared to modern varieties, but when you think about the fact that it’s 100 years old, it makes sense,”​ she said.

Sparking a Michigan movement

The main objective MSU has for Spartan barley is making it a certified seed in Michigan, in order to release the barley to more farmers.

“There’s a lot of interest in heritage varieties and bringing more diversity our crops and even within the crops – diversity within varieties,”​ McFarland said. “I think that’s one thing that’s really sparked interest in this.”

The research team at MSU knows that Spartan barley is not going to ever be produced in massive quantities, but that is why they brought it back to life.

“I think what’s really resonating with people is this idea of bringing back these old varieties,”​ McFarland said.

“Before everything was so siloed in that we pretty much only grow a couple varieties of corn or soy, or a couple varieties of wheat. This is exciting because it brings more diversity to our offerings.”

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