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Rye resurgence spurs research

Increased interest in growing rye in North Dakota and Minnesota has spurred researchers to update production information on the small grain crop. Researchers were receiving requests for production information because growers are looking for alternatives for cash and cover crops, and there is a new interest in malting rye for craft brewing and distilling. 

Tests on a new variety are in progress at the NDSU Research Extension Centers. Research Specialist Steve Zwinger reports that during the past few years he received requests for winter rye seed along with rye production information from growers. Because the last variety released in North Dakota, Dacold, was in 1989, researchers saw a need to develop and test a current variety. A new variety, identified as DR02, was the result of their research. Thirty-five acres of DR02 were seeded in the fall of 2015 to increase seed in anticipation of release of the variety in 2016.

Another project evaluating winter rye varieties is led by Jochum Wiersma, small grains specialist and professor at the University of Minnesota at Crookston. Wiersma said rye is uniquely suited to the drought prone soils in Minnesota and is the most winter hardy cereal crop. However, no new agronomic or performance data on winter rye has been published for more than two decades.

Wiersma’s study began in 2014, when a farmer and owner of a micro-distillery received a three-year Minnesota Department of Agriculture crop research grant to study locally grown rye for distilling. Michael Swanson owns Far North Spirits in Hallock, Minnesota, and had already been successfully producing distilled spirits from his rye crop. The grant was developed to research agronomic characteristics of rye varieties and the varietal effects on distilling factors such as the distillate yield, initial viscosity, flavor and aroma. 

Beginning in the fall of 2014, Wiersma seeded 14 winter rye varieties and four winter rye hybrids in five locations across western and central Minnesota. Agronomic data, including grain yield and disease resistance, animal feed values and other important production factors were measured. Based on results, he selected five varieties for evaluation by Swanson. “This information will be publicly available to rye producers across Minnesota and the upper plains for future production and possible malting and distilling, with the goal of making Minnesota a leader in the production of world-class rye spirits,” said Swanson.

Several of the rye varieties tested by Wiersma also were submitted to the malting barley quality laboratory at NDSU to determine basic malt characteristics. One of those varieties is DR02. Paul Schwarz manages the laboratory and one of his graduate students, Yujuan Wang, runs the rye malting research. 

Schwarz said there are specific difficulties in malting and brewing with rye, mainly because of the high soluble fiber (arabnioxylan) content of rye kernels, which causes problems with filtering during the brewing process and haziness in the final brewing liquid (wort). But, he says the unique flavors that rye imparts to beer are highly desired by brewers. These flavors are characterized as soft grain, tart, spicy and crisp.

Wang has completed her initial research to identify micro-malting conditions that could be used to screen rye genotypes for malt quality with the goal of obtaining high extract, minimal malt loss and lower arabnioxylans content in the wort, thus reducing wort viscosity. She plans to continue researching more of the varieties in Wiersma’s study and also will look at flavor differences between rye varieties for her master’s degree thesis. 

Wiersma is continuing the rye variety performance trials and has seeded rye varieties for evaluation at five locations in Minnesota (Crookston, St. Paul, Lamberton. Le Center and Kimball). Five varieties will be grown in Spring Grove and Hallock, Minnesota. These varieties will be used by Far North Spirits and Rockfilter Distillers to test whether different varieties yield different tastes on the still. The results of the performance trials will likely be published in the fall of 2016 with two years of data by the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station.


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