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Great Grains

September 16, 2020
man outside
Senior Research Scientist Thomas Foulke in his experimental plot of emmer and spelt.

From diversifying the economy with ancient grains to producing top brewers, UW knows the value of a great grain.

 

By Micaela Myers 

Move over, corn and wheat—ancient grains are making a comeback. Cultivated for thousands of years, these grains fell out of favor when mechanization arrived due to the extra step of de-hulling that is required. With the popularity of whole grains and the rise in gluten sensitivity, there’s a renewed interest in ancient grains, which are nutritious and in some cases more compatible with gluten sensitivities.

Recognizing this as an economic opportunity for the state, University of Wyoming researchers and extension experts launched the Wyoming First-grains Project to showcase a new avenue for economic development in the state by developing a niche industry around emmer, spelt and einkorn as alternative crops. Einkorn (Triticum monococcum) was one of the first cereal grains domesticated and grown for food. Emmer (Triticum dicoccoides) and barley eventually replaced einkorn as the dominant cereal grains near the end of the Bronze Age. Spelt (Triticum spelta) is even more widely adapted than einkorn and emmer due to the addition of a third genome from a wild grass, giving it six sets of chromosomes. Like modern wheat, this makes spelt a hexaploid. 

“We wanted to grow something that was economically viable and fit into the state—that farmers would accept and want to grow,” says Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics Senior Research Scientist Thomas Foulke. Once the market is established, they hope to spin off a company, complete with farmer-suppliers and branded products. The products will sell under the Neolithic Brand trademark with the marketing slogan “One step away from wild.”

“There’s a movement for premium products that are new and different in the marketplace,” he says. “We can tap that market with these products that provide the nutritional profile that people are looking for. Health benefits are a key selling point.”

Department of Family and Consumer Sciences Assistant Professor Jill Keith, a nutritionist and team member, had some of the grain analyzed for nutritional content. Initial results show health benefits of these first grains include increased fiber content and increased calcium, zinc, magnesium and iron.

 

Growing First Grains

Northwest Extension Educator Caitlin Youngquist listened to barley producers lament about reduced contracts several years ago and began to look into alternatives—grains they could grow with their existing expertise and equipment. Some first-grain seeds were donated, and she began growing them. She and Department of Plant Sciences Assistant Professor Carrie Eberle received a federal grant through the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. They joined forces with Foulke to further the first-grains project. 

“We are evaluating how first grains perform in different areas of the state,” Eberle says. They are studying dryland and irrigated production, spring and winter planted grains and different levels of nitrogen fertilization.

“One agronomic benefit of these older, less domesticated varieties of wheat is that they are better adapted to harsh growing conditions,” she says, meaning they may do well in Wyoming. “The work I’m doing would be the most impactful economically if we have lower inputs required to produce a high-value crop. I’m hoping we can get really good information on growing, producing and managing so that, as these take off, our growers don’t have to struggle, and we can give them a good starting place.”

Foulke says farmers look to the university for this type of leadership and are receptive to the project. It’s a niche market that will only take up part of a farmer’s acreage. Currently, five private farmers—in Hot Springs, Big Horn, Platte, Goshen and Sheridan counties—are growing the grains along with the Lingle, Powell and Sheridan UW research and extension centers.

“In Wyoming, we don’t grow a lot of crops for food,” Youngquist says. “So it’s really nice to have a crop that can fit into our rotation, that people already know how to grow, and that can be a niche market and revenue source for producers.”

 

man leaning over a vat of grain and letting the grains run through his hands
Wyoming Seed Certification Service Manager Mike Moore.

Building the Market

The UW Agricultural Experiment Station is the primary funder for the first-grains project. But when no de-hulling capacity was found within the region, Foulke wrote a grant and obtained $50,000 from the UW Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship for a de-huller. Wyoming Seed Certification Service Manager Mike Moore installed the de-huller at the Powell Research and Extension Center. It’s the only non-organic de-huller in a three-state area. This gives the Wyoming First-grains Project a leg up in the regional market. Moore brings his expertise in seeds and grains to the group.

“I see it as something UW can do to help a new industry,” he says. “When you hear that sugar beets are struggling and they don’t need as much malt barley now, the area definitely needs production opportunities and unique ones. Something like this can be an opportunity not just for producers but from farmers all the way to an end product—something that can put all the jobs and the money into Wyoming instead of shipping off raw product.”

With their expertise and de-huller, Foulke says potential producers in the region will look to them. “We’re thinking we can do it like a barley contract where we contract for acres and help control the size of the market because we actually have an outlet for the grain. UW can contribute to the regional economy in the state and play a role we haven’t been playing before.”

Colorado is one market for the grains—consumers there seek these products, as do brewers. The Wyoming First-grains Project is partnering with Wyoming Malting Co. in Pine Bluffs to provide malted grains for use in the craft brewing industry. The First-grains Project has already supplied grain for flour to bakeries in several locations across the state.

“Partnering with people is how we help create jobs and enhance incomes,” Foulke says. “Businesses have the technical knowledge, and we can share that revenue in a way that’s beneficial to both them and us.”

Consumers also appreciate buying locally grown products. Eberle says: “All of our bakers, brewers and malters are interested in the product and want to try it, and the local food demand is something I really love seeing and interacting with.”

Youngquist has been working with commercial and home bakers to develop recipes and is working on a video series. Emmer is her favorite.

“It makes a dense bread, but the flavor is outstanding. You can cook it as a whole grain. It can be sweet or savory like a bowl or breakfast cereal.”

Interest in first-grains is growing with businesses as well. The Alibi in Laramie was the first to start selling breads made with the grains. The Bread Doctor in Torrington has recently started to take delivery as well. Other commercial bakeries also sell products using first grains, including Claire’s French Bakery, which is owned by baker Diane Whitlock and serves the Powell and Cody area. Youngquist shared some first grains with her about a year ago, and Whitlock began making and selling a seven-grain molasses loaf that customers love.

“It’s so fresh and so yummy,” Whitlock says. “The greatest thing is to be able to say that this is grown and milled right here in Wyoming. People love the thought of it being created in Wyoming. I love the thought of bringing back these ancient grains. It’s amazing to me that we’ve been given this gift.”

To learn more about the Wyoming First-grains Project, visit neolithicbrand.com.

 

collage with three photos of people
Clockwise from top left: Ben and Daron Gruner; photo by The BARK Firm. Cyrus Bevenger; photo by Kristi Hess. Jared Long; photo by Nikkita Miller.

Ben and Daron Gruner – Gruner Brothers Brewing

Casper natives and brothers Ben (business management ’97) and Daron (mechanical engineering ’93) began home brewing as college students in Laramie. Daron was always the brewmaster, and after years of working in the air compressor business, the brothers opened their taproom in the historic Casper Petroleum Club building in 2018.

“We’ve had a good time and made good beers,” says Ben, who focuses on sales and delivery. “We also have beers across the state in cans. We have 14 beers we’ve made and sold. There are seven to eight we have all the time. The others are seasonal for the most part.”

One of their most popular beers is the A O.K. Marzen-style lager.

“It stands for ‘Always Oktober.’ It’s in the style of Oktoberfest, but we make it year round,” Ben says. Other popular beers include the Petro Club Pilsner, Ben Light pilsner, Double Clutch oatmeal stout, North Platte pale ale and Beulah Brown, named after Beulah, Wyo., where Ben’s wife is from. The brewery’s logo is her family’s farm truck with their dog on the roof. Gruner Brothers also offers a variety of others beers, including IPAs, a hefeweizen and Belgian-style beers. 

“Ninety percent of the grains we use are Wyoming grown,” Ben says. “It’s some of the best grain out there. A big kudos to the farmers here in Wyoming making those barley crops.”

He likes to pair the A O.K. with pizza or burgers and the Petro Club or IPAs with salads or fish.

Ben loves traveling across the state for sales and delivery and to see their beers being enjoyed in small towns. He remembers his time at UW fondly. “The College of Business had a lot of really good professors who helped us develop into the entrepreneurs that we are,” Ben says. “It was a really good place to go to college, and I felt I got a good education.”

Ben’s college roommate, Greg Morthole, is now a winemaker.

 

Cyrus Bevenger – Timnath Beerwerks

Cyrus Bevenger grew up in Cody, Wyo., and earned his bachelor’s (’04) and master’s (’06) in chemical engineering at UW. He worked in the semiconductor industry before turning his skills to brewing, first as a home brewer then as lab manager at Grimm Brothers Brewhouse. In 2018, he joined Timnath Beerwerks in Timnath, Colo., as head brewer and became part owner in 2019.

“This industry is unlike any other,” Bevenger says. “There is so much collaboration and helping each other out because we all share the same customers. The craft beer community understands that, when everyone makes better beer, it elevates us all.”

The brewery currently pours more than 15 types of beers—from blondes to ambers, IPAs to sours. Bevenger’s favorites depend on the weather and his mood, but he especially loves a crisp, bitter, clean double IPA.

“I’ve been dialing in the one here at Timnath Beerwerks since I started home brewing and really miss it when it isn’t on tap,” he says. “It goes well with a good steak or really anything hearty.”

He says UW helped prepare him for his career in many ways: “The engineering school and honors programs there are top notch. Both do a great job of maintaining high standards while caring for the students to help them through tough courses. Favorite memories include long nights studying reaction kinetics and mass transfer with some of my best friends and probably too much beer, traveling with the football and basketball teams to postseason games as part of the pep and marching band, and cross-country skiing down the Poker Run in Centennial with a bunch of crazy people and crazier dogs every winter.”

 

Jared Long – New Glory Craft Brewing

Jared Long of Sacramento, Calif., began his journey into craft brewing right here in Laramie at Altitude Chophouse & Brewery.

“During the day, I was Mr. Long, sixth-grade classroom teacher. Then I would head to the brewery,” says the elementary education, geography and American studies graduate (’03). “That’s the way it was for five years before transitioning to brewing full time.”

Long now serves as director of brewing operations at New Glory Craft Brewing in Sacramento, where he manages all processes and personnel required to turn raw ingredients into the beer. The brewery features dozens of canned beers, including a wide selection of IPAs, and offers a taproom.

“I love the type of people our industry attracts,” he says. “Beer is ancient, but craft brewing in the United States is a relatively recent phenomenon. Because of this, a lot of the individuals who work in craft beer have had previous careers in an entirely unrelated industry. I’ve met so many good people with genuinely interesting life experiences who somehow found their way into craft beer.”

He loves a good German-style pilsner paired with golf, travel and friends or a Japanese-style lager paired with sushi.

When Long came to UW, he knew nothing about Wyoming.

“It broadened my thinking and broke down a lot of preconceived notions I held about people and the way the world works,” he says. “I remember wearing my Pokes shirt visiting my family in California during a break, and people would just look at me like I was insane—‘What the hell is a Poke?’ Too funny.”

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