This blog post was developed in collaboration with Hopworks Urban Brewery, a supporter of Good Stuff NW, though the words are all my own.
Oddly enough, it all started a year-and-a-half ago when Christian Ettinger, owner of Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland, thought he was being pranked. He was at the grocery store with his family when his phone rang. Stopping mid-aisle to answer it, the voice on the other end said he was calling from Patagonia Provisions and that the company would like to discuss making a beer with Hopworks.
"It was a surreal moment because it was hard to believe that a company that I look up to as a business owner had just dialed my number and asked to make a beer with us," Ettinger recalled. "That week we met up and our team learned about Kernza for the first time."
Patagonia Provisions had singled out Hopworks not just because both companies are B Corps, companies certified to have met rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency, but both have a mission of sourcing organic and sustainable ingredients as much as possible.
Patagonia Provisions itself is dedicated to supporting a farming method known as "organic regenerative agriculture"—one that restores soil biodiversity, sequesters carbon and grows crops efficiently without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Better yet, this method keeps harmful effluents out of the environment, improving the health of surrounding communities and the people in it. Call it organic farming with benefits.
Kernza has an impressive root system.
Kernza wheat fits into this picture because, as a perennial crop, it doesn't have to be replanted every year like other types of wheat. That means it allows long-term storage of carbon dioxide in the soil (called carbon sequestration), rather than releasing it into the air when the soil is plowed each year. Because Kernza lives on from harvest to harvest, its roots can grow to 10 feet in length and are so efficient that the plant needs much less water that other strains of wheat. These long roots also help to reduce erosion by stabilizing the soil, and the plant itself absorbs more atmospheric carbon than annual grains and thrives without the use of pesticides.
Originally a Eurasian forage grass called intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium), a grass species related to wheat, it was selected by researchers at the Rodale Institute and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a promising perennial grain candidate. In 2003, The Land Institute, which works to develop staple foods without compromising cultural and ecological systems, took the grain into its traditional breeding program—think Mendel's peas rather than genetic engineering—and began selecting for traits like yield, disease resistance and seed size.
Hopworks production manager Justin Miller.
Calling it Kernza, which was registered as a trademark to protect the name from being applied to other strains, the institute then began talking with its partners about commercial uses for the grain. Patagonia Provisions stepped up and, with the idea of making a beer from the grain, brought in Ettinger and his team from Hopworks to start formulating a beer.
"It was very exciting for us," Justin Miller, Hopworks production manager, said of the opportunity to be the first to work with the organic, sustainable grain. "It very much fits into what we do here at Hopworks."
Indeed, Hopworks is the first commercial brewer to make a beer using Kernza as an ingredient. Miller said it took eight test barrels—at 31 gallons to the barrel, that's more than 240 gallons of tests—and much, much tasting to finally come up with a beer that the teams at both Hopworks and Patagonia Provisions were happy with. Hopworks even went so far as to put a test batch on draft at its Portland pubs, so if you had a pint of Prohibition Double Secret Ale, you got an early taste of it.
The final product.
The final product, dubbed Long Root Ale, contains 15 percent Kernza along with organic two-row barley, organic yeast and a blend of organic Chinook, Mosaic and Crystal hops. The flavor is that of a classic Northwest-style pale ale, a bit peppery with a balanced, clean finish and a sessionable 5.5 percent alcohol-by-volume.
It's being rolled out at most Whole Foods markets up and down the West Coast, and while Hopworks is the first to use Kernza to make beer, Ettinger is convinced the grain has a promising future in the industry.
"Kernza is really paving the way for future discussions about other commodity grains that we use to brew," he said. "As organic brewers we are really excited about the ‘grain to glass’ model, and Long Root Ale is just that."
Top photo by Chad Brigman. Photo of Kernza roots by Jim Richardson.