Kernza: The grain with a future brewing in beer

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Kernza: Can the carbon sequestering grain transform brewing?

Related tags Ancient grains beer Brewing Wheat carbon sequestration

Breweries are exploring the potential of Kernza: a carbon-sequestering perennial grain.

In September, Deschutes Brewery and Patagonia Provisions will launch Kernza Lager and non-alcoholic Kernza Golden Brew will both launch in the US (the latter marks the first certified organic non-alcoholic craft beer brewed in the US).

It follows on from previous Kernza craft launches in the US last year.

What's the big deal? As a perennial plant with deep roots that could help sequester carbon, Kernza is one of the grains being championed as part of a move towards a regenerative agriculture set-up.

What is Kernza?

Kernza grain is harvested from intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium). The grain is a relation of annual wheat, which is grow throughout the US as fodder for livestock.

Intermediate wheatgrasses can offer a ‘multi-functional’ crop: with potential for use in foods like baked goods or as a whole grain like barley or rice.

The grain was developed by The Land Institute, a non-profit research organization dedicated to developing sustainable food production methods, which launched a breeding program for intermediate wheatgrass back in 2003 and registered the name ‘kernza’ in 2009.

Many of the crops the planet relies on for food come from an annual monoculture agriculture system. Perennial crops, in contrast, protect soil from erosion and improve soil structure, with roots that can stretch 10ft down into the ground. They increase ecosystem nutrient retention, carbon sequestration, water infiltration and uptake efficiency.

Given that grains make up more than 70% of global caloric consumption and over 70% of global crop lands, transitioning from annual crops to a perennial model is the ‘best chance we have to create a truly regenerative food future’, according to The Land Institute.

Furthermore, perennial grains – like kernza – can help farmers by reducing the need for costly inputs and minimizing the operational expenses of tillage and planting.

Patagonia Provisions

Patagonia Provisions – the food arm of outdoor clothing company Patagonia – started investigating the potential of Kernza last year. 

The company was set up in 2012 by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, who famously forfeited ownership of the company and put the profits towards climate change. Patagonia Provisions sets out its mission as addressing a broken food chain, trying to find ways to create more sustainable systems. 

Its main focus to date has been on exploring such grains and their potential. That includes Kernza, in the likes of products such as Patagonia pasta: a combination of semolina and Kernza.

The grain's potential might be obvious when it comes to food or snacks - but why beer?

The reason is that most breweries currently source raw materials from conventional industrial farms, which use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Very few produce certified organic beer: less than 50 of the 9,700+ breweries in the US (according to USDA statistics).

Patagonia's brewing partners in kernza

  • Allagash Brewing Company (Portland, ME)
  • Arizona Wilderness Brewing (Gilbert, AZ)
  • Aslan Brewing Co. (Bellingham, WA)
  • Bang Brewery Company (St. Paul, MN)
  • Hopworks Urban Brewery (Portland, OR)
  • Maui Brewing Company (Kihei, HI)
  • Odell Brewing Co. (Ft. Collins, CO)
  • Rhinegeist Brewery (Cincinnati, OH)
  • Russian River Brewing (Sonoma County, CA)
  • Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (Chico, CA)
  • Topa Topa Brewing Company (Ventura, CA)

In 2023, Patagonia Provisions launched a partner brewery program wherein nearly 20 craft breweries across the U.S. each brewed their own regional Kernza Lager, made with organic ingredients, and available on draft at their owned and operated taprooms.

In this way, Patagonia and its fellow brewers want to drive an industry shift towards more responsible practices and to scale Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) and organic ingredients in beer. 

"Kernza is a relatively new grain: It has been used in other foods for a few years, but is new to the beer industry," Paul Lightfoot, general manager, Patagonia Provisions, told us.

"Our strong partnerships with retailers like Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Total Wine are instrumental in bringing this grain to a wider audience – through beer and Patagonia Provisions pasta. This is creating more awareness and trial of Kernza products which is resulting in more farmers planting the grain."

What does kernza taste like?

Patagonia's latest collaboration is with Oregon brewer Deschutes, which is the tenth largest craft brewer in the US. The kernza beers - set to be released in September​ - will be brewed with organic practices at Deschutes brewery in Bend, Oregon.

Kernza Lager (4.7% ABV) boasts hints of light floral and lemon, complemented by Kernza’s subtle earthy herbal character. It’s crafted with all organic ingredients including Kernza and Regenerative Organic Certified rye.

Non-Alcoholic Kernza Golden Brew is produced in-house at Deschutes through a partnership with Sustainable Beverage Technologies (SBT) and utilizes the company’s patented BrewVo® technology in combination with Deschutes’ proprietary brewing methods.

“Kernza imparts a very pleasant slightly sweet, nutty flavor to the beer,” Peter Skrbek, CEO of Deschutes Brewery, told us. “It is also a higher protein grain which helps establish a nice full mouthfeel.”

kernza alc

Kernza Lager and Non-Alcoholic Kernza Golden Brew will debut in major retailers across the US, including Whole Foods Market, Kroger, and Total Wine & More, in September.

Kernza Lager (4.7% ABV) is 'A bright and wildly drinkable lager featuring light floral and lemon notes, with just a hint of earthy herbal character provided by the Kernza'. It uses organic helios and adeena as hops, and organic 2-row and Kernza and ROC Rye Malt.

Non-Alcoholic Kernza Golden Brew comes in at <0.5%.

Scaling up the potential

The crop is now grown in the US and abroad and sold as a niche crop on a small scale. That’s the main thing holding the crop back, said Skrbek – and that’s why Deschutes and Patagonia have teamed up to help drink the grain forward.

“The only potential limitation [for kernza] at the moment is a lack of supply along with the lack of an established market which results in higher pricing. Farmers need assurance that what they grow will be used," he said. "Adding it as a beer ingredient can vastly help increase demand which establishes meaningful scale for the Kernza crop. Brewing with it also acts as a nice sink in a situation where there is excess supply. We can flex its percentage in the grain bill to help manage availability and stabilize the nascent Kernza market.”

Another current limitation is the cost – but also another challenge that can be addressed by scaling up the grain.

“Kernza is presently much more expensive than our primary grain input which is malted barley. The primary reason that it's more expensive is that currently there are only a few farmers growing it. Using it for beer not only acts as a means to bring awareness to the potential of Kernza, but also creates substantial demand to help create the grain market needed to encourage more farmers to grow Kernza.”

Despite the cost of the raw materials, the partnership pledges that brews will be sold at affordable price points comparable to other non-organic craft beers on the market.
 
“We are committed to offering the beer at an affordable price point so that great organic beer is available to a broad group of fans,” said Skrbek. “We are absorbing the increased raw material costs because we believe in the potential of Kernza to positively enhance sustainable American grain production. We want to be part of creating the market for this incredibly unique wheatgrass.”

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