Beer made with Spartan barley creates craft industry buzz

Posted at 11:16 AM, Nov 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-11 11:16:02-05

Century-old Spartan barley has made a comeback, and a Michigan craft brewery will be the first to feature it in a limited-edition lager called Russ’s Revival – named after the Michigan State University researcher who resurrected the heirloom variety.

Russ’s Revival will be available in limited quantities at New Holland Brewing Co. and select taphouses throughout the Lansing area later this month.

“When I heard about Spartan barley, it struck me as the perfect opportunity,” said Steve “Bert” Berthel, brewmaster at New Holland Brewing Co. in Holland, Michigan. “This is a way to celebrate not just MSU and its contributions to agriculture but our whole state. When you hear the story behind Spartan barley, it’s pretty difficult not to want to make a beer with that.”

Spartan barley was developed in 1916, four years before Prohibition, by MSU plant breeder F.A. Spragg. Boasting superior quality, better disease resistance and higher yields than its predecessors, the barley quickly made its way into fields throughout the country.

Brewers especially looked to Spartan barley as Prohibition began to wane and production of beer with low alcohol content was legalized. By 1933, some 30,000 Michigan farmers were growing it.

Eventually, however, newer varieties were developed and Spartan barley had gradually disappeared from the agricultural landscape by the 1950s. But that’s now changed, thanks to MSU AgBioResearch agronomist and plant breeder Russell “Russ” Freed and his team that revived the barley from heirloom seed.

Joel Petersen, vice president of marketing for New Holland Brewing Co., said being the first to make a commitment to Spartan barley was an easy decision. He said MSU’s agricultural expertise lends credibility to an endeavor that he just couldn’t pass up.

“This is an incredibly exciting project,” Petersen said. “Here’s a barley that was a substantial part of brewing culture a long time ago, and now we’ve had an opportunity to be part of bringing that back. The Michigan State program speaks for itself and is a leader in agriculture all over the world, so instantly there is a high level of credibility that made tackling this project an easy ‘yes.’”

A team at Pilot Malt House in Byron Center, Michigan, was responsible for turning Spartan’s raw harvested grain, delivered to the malt house in massive bags weighing up to 1 ton, into beer-worthy malt.

Though most barley varieties take between three and four days to germinate, Spartan takes a bit longer.

“Michigan has a unique climate with special challenges that aren’t always met by barley varieties bred for the Great Plains,” said Ryan Hamilton, Pilot Malt House maltster. “Our climate is wetter and cooler than it is out West, and that brings different disease, pest and weather conditions. The need for locally adapted barley varieties has become more apparent every day, and the rebirth of Spartan is an important step in bringing that to our farmers.”

Berthel intends to turn the barley into the best-tasting beer he can. As a nod to Spartan’s origins, he is using the revived grain to produce a lager in the style of beers from the pre-Prohibition era. Using a blend of three hops varieties unique to Michigan, which trace their ancestry to Swedish immigrants from the mid-1880s, and a strain of yeast captured from the wild in Houghton County, the new brew will be as pure Michigan as Spartan’s origins.