Sorghum Beer

Sorghum Beer

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University of Nevada researcher Melinda Yerka sits amid her sorghum crop at UNR’s Valley Road Agricultural Experiment Station

Will work for gluten-free beer

Researchers’ attention turns to sorghum for brewing.

Bread, cereal, spaghetti, snack bars. What do these food items have in common? Grain, which typically constitutes a nightmare for gluten-sensitive eaters. Thankfully, modern food scientists have discovered many gluten-free substitutes that commonly have a base of sorghum, a naturally gluten-free variety of grain from the grass family. And while parts of the world such as Asia have a long history of using sorghum for spirits, American brewers are just getting started with this consumer-friendly base for making 100 percent gluten-free beer.

The absence of gluten in sorghum is one of many reasons to use it instead of barley. Growers can produce more of the grassy grain per acre compared to barley fields while using less water than corn, and beef cattle can feed on the leftover stalks after harvest during the winter. The health and sustainability benefits of sorghum are why University of Nevada, Reno researchers Melinda Yerka, an assistant professor of agriculture, and John Baggett, a soon-to-graduate biochemistry Ph.D. candidate and research assistant, started a sorghum-breeding program at the university’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources.

Making a Better Brew

Funded by a $500,000 grant in 2019 from the United States Department of Agriculture and in partnership with Richardson Seeds, a Texas-based sorghum production facility, the researchers have so far identified a specific hybrid that tastes better than other varieties — a very important aspect of beer-making. Research in the next year or two will hopefully reveal why that is.

Yerka would especially like to “identify what it is about [sorghum] genetically that provides the superior flavor and mouthfeel of this hybrid relative to ‘normal’ sorghum,” so that her group can breed more varieties that are ideal for commercial beer production in a wider range of environments, with help from University of California, Davis’ Glen Fox, Anheuser-Busch endowed professor of malting and brewing sciences.

Readers may be familiar with the terroir concept in wine grapes. That’s what Yerka and Baggett want to develop in sorghum. A grant of $150,000 from UNR’ Experiment Station unit in 2020 is funding research to discover how different environments affect a variety’s malting quality and flavor in order to identify the best regions for producing, malting, and brewing the grain.

“We want to adapt new sorghum hybrids to specific regions to support farm-to-table production of unique varieties and flavors that also contribute to reducing water use in agriculture relative to other crops like alfalfa and corn,” Yerka says.

When asked about detectable flavor differences in sorghum-based versus barley-based beer, Baggett says part of the goal of their research is to discover and understand exactly those. In the meantime, Baggett encourages the sorghum curious to go out and try a pint for themselves; a small number of companies brew with it commercially, and consumers should be able to taste test the UNR-grown sorghum at The Depot Craft Brewery and Distillery in Reno within the next few years.

Emma Schmitz is a writer living in Truckee. She has been in an exclusive relationship with craft beer for almost a decade and is studying to be a beer sommelier.

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