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This grain fights climate change -- and makes a tasty Minnesota beer

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A field of perennial wheatgrass called Kernza.
Kernza's a sustainable wheat that could revolutionize agriculture, if only farmers had a reason to plant it. Beer might just do it, and it turns out the Twin Cities is a hotspot for Kernza brew.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News file

Kernza is a potentially revolutionary grain — a self-sustaining, climate change-fighting wheat that can boost soil and water health and keep carbon locked in the ground.

But it's also a pain to grow. It can be hard to process and even harder to convince farmers to plant it. While it's found its way into artisan breads and other niche foods, Kernza could really use a high-demand consumer product to ignite the mainstream market and get farmers energized to grow it.

Something like beer.

Yes, beer may offer a path to mass production for Kernza. And it turns out the Twin Cities is hotspot for Kernza brew.

'Bring it to market'

In northeast Minneapolis, Fair State Brewing Cooperative has created a crisp golden ale using Kernza, made for drinking on a hot summer day. 

Head brewer Niko Tonks said Kernza tastes like wheat, but has a unique, earthy flavor. 

"I think to me it's more interesting than the white wheat we get for brewing," he said. "I was kind of enjoying kind of snacking on a handful of it while we were brewing."

St. Paul-based Bang Brewing and other craft brewers have also launched beers with Kernza. 

Fair State's new beer, brewed with Kernza
Fair State's new "Keep the North Cold" golden ale is brewed with Kernza, a perennial grain that can help soil store carbon.
Submitted image

Fair State's beer is made from all Minnesota-made ingredients, which is something Tonks has wanted to do for a while. 

"People talk a lot about local beer, but the truth of the matter is for the most part beer is produced locally with ingredients that are sourced globally," Tonks said. "We sit at the very tippy top of this huge supply chain."

Getting his hands on enough Kernza was difficult, however. It took help from Adam Fetcher of the clothing company Askov Finlayson, which also does some environmental advocacy on the side.

Fetcher and Tonks knew each other from their student days at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. So when Askov Finlayson pitched the idea for a Kernza beer, Tonks saw an opportunity for an all-Minnesota brew. 

Fetcher started to track down Kernza. The organization Green Lands Blue Waters helped him connect farmers in northwestern Minnesota, western Minnesota and outside the Twin Cities who'd grow it.

"We were super lucky to get as much as we did," Tonks said. 

While this beer is a small-scale test of Kernza, Fetcher said it's key to the grain's development that people simply try using it. 

"Looking for ways to experiment with it, try it out in your products, bring it to market like Niko and the crew have done here with the beer," he said, "I think that's a really important step as well." 

Kernza as climate fighter?

Kernza's value to the environment lies deep in the soil.

Under the plowing-intensive agriculture required to grow most major crops like corn or soybeans, carbon in the soil would be released into the atmosphere and become the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. 

But perennial grains don't need plowing, which allows soil to keep trapping carbon in the ground. Perennials' large root systems also boost soil and water health by keeping nutrients in the dirt. 

"Agriculture is, obviously, it's a dominant use of land all around the world," said Fletcher. "So if we could scale perennials to the point where they're common or even ubiquitous I think the climate-solution potential is really off the charts."

Small scale, high hurdles

Lee Dehaan has worked to develop Kernza at the Kansas-based Land Institute for more than 15 years. That includes a beer, Long Root Ale, developed with help from a unit of the international outdoor clothing and provisions company Patagonia.

Dehaan said Kernza development has involved traditional plant breeding — selecting the best plants from a crop and breeding them with each other.

"We're mimicking what was done 10,000 years ago to develop crops like wheat, but we're trying to put it on an accelerated time scale so instead of taking hundreds of years we can do it in decades," Dehaan said. 

"Being a farmer in America right now is hard enough, let alone trying to grow a grain that no one's sure if anyone wants and it still needs development to be commercially viable."

Scientists are now working to sequence the genome for Kernza to understand its genetic traits and use that knowledge to grow it more effectively. 

However, this work requires investment by government, industry and farmers. So far, that's been hard to come by. 

There are only about 500 acres of Kernza growing currently in the entire country. While perennial grains have potential to reduce agriculture's massive climate footprint — about 20 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions — it'll likely take decades before they become a mainstream product. 

Dehaan said he has been amazed by how much the food industry has taken to Kernza, but that other stakeholders haven't latched on as much.

While Kernza development has won some funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's sustainability arm, "mainstream" government support isn't there yet, Dehaan said. But Minnesota is a bright spot, he added.

Farmers have been a tough sell, too. 

Kernza is high risk and costly. Processing Kernza is so small-scale that it's inefficient, Dehaan said. For example, cleaning the grain may require several passes before it can move to the next step. 

"Being a farmer in America right now is hard enough, let alone trying to grow a grain that no one's sure if anyone wants and it still needs development to be commercially viable," Fetcher said.

While the northeast Minneapolis beer is a small-scale test of Kernza, Fetcher said it's key to the grain's development that people simply try it. 

"Looking for ways to experiment with it, try it out in your products, bring it to market like Niko and crew have done here with the beer," he said, "I think that's a really important step."

Editor's note (May 10, 2018): This story has been updated to clarify how the Kernza was sourced.