If you want to feel virtuous the next time you chug a brewski, consider the Long Root Ale. This new beer, mildly fragrant and with a rye-like spiciness, is the first to use Kernza, a kind of wheat that could make agriculture more sustainable, especially in the face of climate change.
What makes Kernza environmentally friendly is its biology. It’s a perennial plant, meaning it grows year-round, season after season. So, farmers who produce it don’t need to plow up their land and replant the crop every year, as they do with annuals like corn, wheat, barley and most other staple crops. Plowing causes soil erosion and also lets carbon in the ground escape into the atmosphere — a major source of global warming. Kernza’s long roots, which may plunge 10 to 20 feet underground, holds the soil together and at the same time allows the plant to find its own water rather than depend entirely on irrigation.
These valuable attributes are why the grain has been the subject of intense study and breeding at The Land Institute, a non-profit, agricultural research organization based in Kansas.
Kernza is the trademark name for a kind of wheat believed to have originated in central Asia, in the region between what are now Turkey, Pakistan and Russia. The plant is short and grassy, and produces an edible nutritious kernel, much like wheat or barley.
Lee DeHaan, a plant geneticist with The Land Institute who has studied Kernza since 2003, says the crop has been grown for decades in the United States as a feed supply for livestock.
However, there is little evidence, if any, that the plant was ever eaten by people. That isn’t because the grain isn’t edible, says DeHaan. Rather, it’s simply because perennials haven’t been cultivated for food as much as annuals like rice, wheat and lentils. He explains that « the process of harvesting and replanting an annual crop » makes it easier to select for and breed newer, preferred varieties. Early farmers saw these improvements appear rapidly in the annual crops they were working with — and perennial grains, like the ancestral Kernza, were largely left behind by the agricultural revolution.
Now, scientists aware of the ecological benefits of perennials are trying to bring Kernza up to speed with mainstream agriculture. DeHaan and others at The Land Institute, which registered the grain’s new name in 2011, have been selectively breeding the plant for more than a decade to boost yields and seed size and to increase its resistance to diseases. While there is still room to improve — Kernza could use a larger kernel, for example — some people in the food and beverage industry are already interested in using the grain.