Meet a Researcher – Dr. Yueshu Li, Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre

Meet a Researcher – Dr. Yueshu Li, Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre

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It’s no secret that the craft brewery scene is growing in Manitoba (and almost everywhere else in North America). With thirteen breweries opening their doors in the province since 2016, it’s safe to say Manitobans like their beer local!

With all the buzz surrounding the beer industry in Manitoba lately, even beer-enthusiasts are not aware of the unsuspecting malt house and brewery that sits in the Canadian Grain Commission building just south of the famous intersection of Portage and Main in downtown Winnipeg. This seemingly well-kept secret is better known as the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre (CMBTC) and the work that goes on behind their doors is second to none in North America.

Photo: View from the CMBTC office floor.

The CMBTC is an independent, not-for-profit, applied research facility with state-of-the-art, pilot malting and brewing facilities. If you are involved in the agriculture industry in any way, you will know that there are so many moving parts which drive it. The organization works to provide technical support and market information to a variety of these stakeholders including barley breeders, farmers, seed companies, processors, exporters, maltsters and brewers. Each stakeholder plays an important, specific role in supplying high quality malting barley into the domestic and international marketplace. The agriculture industry needs organizations like the CMBTC that are knowledgeable about the value chain, where it starts, ends and everywhere in between.

Dr. Yueshu Li was the first employee with the CMBTC back in 2000. He was given the opportunity to set up the malting and brewing laboratories from scratch with the support of his colleagues, Micheal Brophy (Canadian Wheat Board) and Dr. Micheal Edney (Grain Research Lab). Yueshu now leads the research team at the organization as the Director of Malting and Brewing Operations. Amongst a long list of things, he steers all research initiatives and oversees the day-to-day operations of the malt plant and brewery to optimize the performance of new Canadian malting barley varieties and newly harvested crop. With over 25 years of experience in the malting industry, Yueshu knows his barley and beer! Over the years, Yueshu, alongside the CMBTC’s Managing Director, Peter Watts and their technical team have worked to establish an excellent reputation worldwide. Today, the organization is a well-recognized technical centre within the global malting and brewing industries.

“The work [that we do] is being carried out with the context of ensuring that Canadian malting barley varieties are a good choice for malting and brewing companies who want to produce quality products. Canadian farmers produce some of the best malting barley [that has been] grown on vast, clean and fertile farmlands on the prairies, making Canada a reliable and a long-term malting barley provider,” Yueshu says. He emphasizes that the first step in producing quality malt and beer is finding the right barley varieties that will produce high quality grain.

Photo: Barley after it been steeped, the most critical stage in the malting process. Steeping ensures even moisture uptake to help with the germination process and create uniform malt quality.

Before new barley lines are registered for a farmer to cultivate, upcoming varieties are rigorously evaluated through what are called the Cooperative and Collaborative research trials – a process that takes three years. From there, after registration, new varieties are sent to the CMBTC for further evaluation, processed into malt which is eventually used to make beer. Both malt and beer are tested for quality and specific parameters. Developing new barley varieties play a key role in keeping Canadian malt barley competitive in the world market. Currently, the two top runners for malt barley varieties seeded in Canada are CDC Copeland and AC Metcalfe, both have been successful. So, why do we need to invest money in breeding new varieties? This is a commonly asked question and the answer is, because we need new genetics with better yields and disease resistance that will allow Canadian farmers to produce grain as efficiently and cost effectively as possible so we remain competitive on the world market.

Over the last five years, barley yields have been gradually increasing in Western Canada. This is something that Yueshu explains are a result of new barley varieties.

“There is no doubt that new barley varieties have contributed to those increases due to their higher yield potential and better disease resistance,” explains Yueshu, “from a quality perspective, so much is dependent on growing conditions and harvest weather. However, new malting barley varieties are offering a greater diversity of quality characteristics tailored to specific brewing styles (e.g. adjunct vs. all malt brewing) which provide end users with the ability to choose varieties with the qualities that suit their needs best.”

At the CMBTC, the bulk of the research that goes on is applied research, which means it directly supports the commercialization of malting barley so that domestic and international customers have reliable information they can use when making purchasing decisions. This type of research can include: malting and brewing trials with new Canadian malting barley varieties, the evaluation of quality characteristics of new varieties for different end-use applications and comparative analysis of malting and brewing properties of barley varieties from around the world.

Photo: The kettle and lauter tun, part of the custom, small-scale brewery set up at the CMBTC.

Two noteworthy projects that the CMBTC is currently working on are known to the CMBTC as the ‘Flavour Project’ and the ‘Premature Yeast Fluctuation (PYF) Project’. The Flavour Project is aimed at studying how major Canadian malting barley varieties contribute to beer flavor and sensory attributes. Yueshu explains that understanding this could positively impact Canadian barley farmers.

“If we can identify the flavour contributing compounds and find out which contribute to positive flavours in beer, this knowledge could enhance the competitiveness of Canadian barley in world markets.”

The PYF Project works to examine the factors during malting that contribute to a phenomenon called Premature Yeast Fluctuation. Since this phenomenon can cause significant beer production losses and poor quality beer, there was a need to launch a study aimed at discovering what methods and procedures can be used to eliminate the formation of factors that trigger PYF.

Both projects are partially funded by the National Barley Research Cluster (NBRC) along with support from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and industry partners. The Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association (MWBGA) provides core funding to the CMBTC, a result of the transition of the Western Canadian Deduction to the three barley commissions in Western Canada (the MWBGA, Alberta Barley Commission and Sask Barley Development Commission) on August 1st, 2017. If you are a farmer-member with any of the three barley commissions, research and market development projects, like the projects carried out by the CMBTC, are what a large portion of the check-off dollars you contribute are allocated to.

Photo: What beer looks like at three different stages (from right to left): before hops, after hops and the chilled, finished product.

Beer – most have rarely thought about the decades of hard work and science that has gone, and continues to go, into crafting the popular beverage that millions of people worldwide cherish. One thing that will always remain true is, if you want to make good beer you need to start with good barley. Canadian farmers know this and that’s why they do everything they can to ensure their product is of the highest quality. Next time you are taking a sip of your favourite beer you can be assured that it starts with the best barley and that it has been studied with the precision and care of professionals, like Dr. Yueshu Li.

If you would like more information on the work that the CMBTC does or would like to access their 2019-2020 Recommended Malting Barley Varieties, visit: www.cmbtc.com

For more information on the research funded by the MWBGA see our Research Projects