Kernza: the climate-friendly grain enticing craft brewers and distillers in Colorado
In a cool, dark cellar down a flight of stairs at the Denver Distillery on South Broadway, a small batch of whiskey is slowly aging. According to a note scrawled in marker on the barrel’s end, it’s been there since April.
On a recent afternoon, General Manager Chris Anderson-Tarver wielded a hammer to knock the cork out of the top and dipped what looked like an oversized turkey baster – a device he called a barrel thief - inside to siphon some of the pale amber liquid into his snifter.
“This great aroma,” he said, pointing out some of the unique qualities wafting out of the glass. “There's a little bit of a fruit note, a little bit of nuttiness, a little bit of an earthiness. There's also this nice kind of buttery profile.”
An alluring profile is to be expected. As one of the very first batches of Kernza-based whiskey ever made in Colorado, this barrel was very different from the usual wheat- or rye-based whiskey the Denver Distillery usually puts out.
Kernza is a new grain that shows promise as an environmentally sustainable crop, and Anderson-Tarver has been experimenting with it to develop an innovative, climate-friendly spirit.
The brew in the barrel was only a few months old—quite immature by whiskey standards—but Anderson Tarver has been sampling it every few weeks to check on its progress, which is how he already knew that Kernza wasn’t just an environmentally sustainable gimmick; it also added a striking flavor.
“Oh yeah, this is going to be so good,” he said, taking a sip. “What I’m tasting right now is a young whiskey, but there's these incredible Fig Newton, almost raisin flavors coming through.”
According to his knowledgeable palate, this batch would probably need to continue aging for a while longer, but he didn’t really know when it would be done because, for all his experience as a distiller, Kernza whiskey was completely novel to him.
“I don't have any data. Is it going to take two years? Is it going to take three years? Is it going to take four?” he said, shrugging. “It's what the barrel tells us.”
But while it could be quite a long time before this small, experimental batch of Kernza whiskey emerges from the dusty obscurity of the distillery basement, it already has allies in the federal government who are invested and eager to learn from it.
Anderson-Tarver’s trial is part of a United States Department of Agriculture study on Kernza. The USDA is overseeing a nationwide effort to understand the grain, from its performance in the field to its performance in the marketplace. The results of that study could help transform millions of acres of future crop production and usher in a new era of perennial, regenerative agriculture.
The allure of Kernza
Intermediate wheatgrass, or IWG, is a perennial prairie grass native to western Asia that was introduced in the United States in the 1930’s. It now grows wild, inconspicuous among the mix of prairie grasses waving in fields throughout the American West.
In the early 1980s plant scientists looking for an alternative to modern, soil-depleting annual crops noted its promise for development into a perennial grain crop. Researchers at the Land Institute, a non-profit research organization in Salina, Kansas, started breeding IWG shortly afterward, working to increase grain size and make it more attractive as a commodity crop.
The name “intermediate wheatgrass” lacked market appeal, so the Land Institute came up with a sexier term for their efforts, christening the resulting grain “Kernza.”
The researchers who domesticated Kernza did so with regenerative agriculture in mind, making sure it retained some key advantages over conventional commodity crops like its cousin wheat. For instance, Kernza is drought resistant, with roots that grow deep—ten feet or more beneath the surface. Rather than exhausting soils, it improves them and prevents erosion.
Importantly, Kernza is also perennial—meaning farmers don't have to replant it every year, which saves labor and diesel and obviates tillage, the soil-depleting practice of tearing up the soil each year when new seeds are sown.
“It's a huge shift in paradigm,” said Hana Fancher, market stewardship specialist with the Land Institute. “So much of our agriculture is dependent on an annual system that's pretty extractive, and the whole idea of … having a grain that is perennial, that requires less inputs, and you don't have to plant it every year, you don't have to till every year. That's really huge.”
But Kernza has only recently become commercially available, and farmers have been slow to adopt it. According to the Land Institute, about 4,000 acres of Kernza are currently being grown nationwide. It has more of a foothold in the Midwest, but farmers in arid Colorado are only now just starting to take a look at it.
Farmer and maltster Todd Olander is a bit of a pioneer in these very early days for Kernza in Colorado.
Last spring, Olander set aside a small field on his 2,000-acre farm in Loveland to experiment with growing Kernza.
“I mean, it's 11 acres out of 2,000. It's worth a trial,” he said.
Olander was unable to harvest any grains this fall because he planted too late in the year. But the initial growth was encouraging, with tufts of broad, green Kernza blades covering the soil throughout the field.
"By the time next spring rolls around, it'll get a nice early start and we'll have a pretty good grain production, next year," he said.
Olander is one of just five independent farmers not involved in a formal scientific study who have collectively planted a few dozen acres statewide, according to information the Land Institute, which tracks Kernza growers.
If Kernza is slow to gain momentum outside of the research world, that’s because from a grower’s perspective, it poses a big risk: the yield is much lower than traditional wheat and the grains are very small, making them very hard to clean and process. It’s also expensive – Kernza can cost several times as much as wheat and there isn’t yet an established market for it.
On top of that, some important scientific questions about the environmental benefits of Kernza have yet to be answered, like the plant’s capacity to sequester carbon in the soil, but Fancher says things look promising on that front, as well.
A Nationwide Study
Kernza looks promising enough that it’s caught the attention of the United States Department of Agriculture. Last year researchers at the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Colorado helped launch a long-term, nationwide Kernza study to fill in some of the remaining gaps in the knowledge base.
Peter Kleinman, Research Leader for the USDA ARS Soil Management Sugar Beet Research Unit, who heads the Colorado portion of the study, said the objectives of the project are broad because there are still many unknowns.
“It's early. This is the Wild West for Kernza,” he said. “Almost everything we do is the first time.”
The team in Colorado now has six acres of Kernza growing in research plots at the USDA ARS station.
The study is starting small, but the ambitions are vast. According to USDA Research Agronomist Grace Miner, the work is driven by an understanding that the continued security of the nation’s food system will depend on finding viable alternatives to conventional agriculture, which is not sustainable in the long-term.
“Wheat-fallow has been the traditional business as norm, but it has also come with a large degree of soil loss and erosion,” Miner said. “Perennial crops - if they can provide continual soil cover and can still provide an economic return for the farmer - give that chance for the land to rebuild and rest.”
They hope their work will eventually have a broad impact on the country’s agricultural system. But a transformed agricultural system requires a transformed marketplace. Demand for Kernza needs to be built from the ground up.
In a white paper on the study, USDA researchers identified the brewing and distilling industry as a potential “high value market for Kernza, driving interest and awareness of its contribution to sustainable production systems.”
To test out that theory, the research team shipped a few hundred pounds of Kernza to two craft beverage houses in Colorado, Odell Brewing and the Denver Distillery, and asked them to experiment with the grain and provide feedback.
“We're taking a gamble by reaching out to the brewing industry and distillers,” Kleinman said. “It's not because that's the ultimate end, right? The ultimate end is that millions of acres of a crop like this are planted and that it's brought into human nutrition, not just in the form of beer and bourbon, but in our breakfast cereals, in our breads in the meat that we eat.”
Interest from craft brewers and distillers
Marni Wahlquist, Head Brewer at the Odell Brewing Company’s Sloan’s Lake Brewhouse, initially became interested in Kernza after watching a documentary film highlighting its environmental benefits.
“I am in general interested in anything new that I can play around with in the brewhouse. I'm very adventurous,” she said. “But with something sustainable— grass that's perennial—I was very excited.”
It took a few years, but she finally got her chance to put Kernza to the test when the USDA researchers sent her a bag of the grains last spring. Her first project was a small batch Kernza hazy IPA. A few months later, she collaborated with Patagonia Provisions to create her second Kernza brew, a Kernza lager.
At the Denver Distillery, Chris Anderson-Tarver had a similar fascination with the environmental promise of Kernza. “We like to play around with unusual ingredients. But as a distillery, we actually really, really care how our grain is grown,” he said.
Denver Distillery is committed to using only local, sustainable grains.
“Kernza fit the bill for us in that not only did it have really interesting problems it was trying to tackle but also we have a sense that it will be probably successfully grown in Colorado,” Anderson-Tarver said.
Of course, beer has the advantage of a shorter turnover time than aged whiskey—it takes just a few weeks to finish a brew cycle—so whereas Anderson-Tarver must be patient, Wahlquist has been able to test her Kernza experiments in the marketplace.
The Kernza lager and hazy IPA have been on tap intermittently at the brewhouse. When they’re available, the menu features a short blurb on the benefits of Kernza. Both brews have been popular with customers, but not necessarily because of their climate bonafides.
“People don’t read a lot the descriptions of the beers,” Wahlquist said adding that her customers care more about the type of beer they’re drinking than its backstory. “Hazies generally sell very well. People like the sweet hoppy flavors.”
Olander, who also runs a malthouse and sells most of his crops to the local craft beverage industry is bullish about finding buyers for his future Kernza crop among his regular clientele, even though the grains are too small for his malting equipment.
“With the network of breweries that we work with and distilleries, there's going to be a market,” he said.
Anderson-Tarver of the Denver Distillery would almost certainly make up part of the market for Olander’s Kernza. He was impressed enough with the preliminary samples from his pilot batch of Kernza whiskey from the USDA collaboration that he hoped someday to include Kernza in the regular distilling rotation.
“It's just a fascinating grain just because it has some really cool properties,” he said. “The flavor, though, is really what's going to keep us coming back.”
But he said he would wait until locally grown Kernza is more widely available, and the price of the grain comes down.