Genetic markers in barley ‘could help growers’ say scientists

The steeping of malting barley.

The steeping of malting barley. - Credit: Ian Oliver

Researchers have identified key genetic markers in barley which could help growers meet malting specifications and lead to more efficient whisky production.

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB)-funded research, carried out by the James Hutton Institute and SRUC, aimed to identify genetic markers for diastatic power (DP), which is the ability of a malt to break down starches into simpler, fermentable sugars, during the mashing process.

This process is essential in the production of grain whisky where the mash consists of up to 90% of unmalted cereal with the remaining barley component added in quantities sufficient to break down the starch.

AHDB Cereal product quality scientist Dhan Bandari said the work would help spring barley growers meet the malting specifications for the distilling and brewing markets.

“Varieties with higher diastatic power can be used with higher proportions of unmalted cereal in grain whisky production, thus enhancing the overall yield of spirit. This potentially makes grain whisky production both quicker and cheaper, and increases the number of barrels of spirit produced per hectare of land used,” he said.

Dr Bill Thomas, one of the researchers who has worked on the two year DP GENES project, said the markers identified by this project would allow breeders to combine high diastatic power with high yield and so produce premium barley which could improve profit margins of both growers and distillers.

“The project has enabled us to identify a group of genetic markers associated with high diastatic power which are compatible with current breeding programmes,” he said. “This means that varieties purposefully bred for high diastatic power and high yield could be available in the next five years.”