Monday, December 3, 2012

Have a Cheatgrass Beer and Help the Great Basin

Revenge is a dish best served cold: about 45 degrees for amber ales. Tye Morgan has a plan to foil cheatgrass and heal native Great Basin plant communities by brewing beer. She told Ira Flatow about it recently on NPR’s Science Friday.

As an environmental researcher, Tye finds ways to manage invasive cheatgrass. In her off hours, she and her husband, Joe, are home brewers who teach others how to turn grains, hops, yeast, and water into ales, lagers, and stouts in Reno, Nevada. Tye combined her knowledge of cheatgrass with her love of brewing to come up with a way to restore cheatgrass-invaded areas while producing beer. "Every time people drink our beer, they are doing something to save their desert," she told a local news outlet.

Cheatgrass lives fast and dies young

Conservationists, ranchers, and fire fighters shudder each summer when nonnative cheatgrass dies to form a carpet of tinder.

Although native plants burn, too, cheatgrass stalks carry flames especially well. What’s more, cheatgrass has already assured its survival by the time fire season rolls around. The plants produce a bumper crop of seeds each spring--up to 65,000 per square meter--that sprout into new plants the following fall.

Our native perennial grasses and sagebrush, on the other hand, hunker down and survive the hot, dry summer as dormant live plants. Rooted in place, they can't run and are killed by fire.

When the ashes have cooled, cheatgrass seeds blow or hitch rides on fur or socks into burned areas. With the native plants dead or damaged, the uninvited guests sprout to find they're the only ones at the banquet. Cheatgrass gobbles up soil nutrients and water and produces another crop of seeds to continue the cycle.

By harvesting cheatgrass seeds each year, Tye hopes to both reduce the number of cheatgrass plants and improve conditions for our native plants. Fewer cheatgrass seeds means fewer cheatgrass plants sprouting. Repeatedly taking off the nitrogen-rich seeds for beer should gradually reduce the level of this plant nutrient in the soil.

Fast-growing cheatgrass needs lots of nitrogen to support its lifestyle. But the native plants, with their more tortoise-like approach to the race for survival, thrive in less fertile conditions. Tye will count the cheatgrass seeds and measure the soil nitrogen to know when native plants have the best chances. Then she'll reseed the area with a mix of native species.

Amber ale and more

Ira Flatow tasted Tye and Joe’s amber ale cheatgrass beer and pronounced it "delicious." Tye explained to the Science Friday host that they mix barley with the cheatgrass seeds. Barley adds an enzyme that turns starch in the seeds into sugar; cheatgrass lacks this enzyme. Once the sugar is released, yeast converts it to alcohol.

The couple isn’t satisfied with just one type of beer. Their company, Bromus Tech, is working with Lance Jergensen, an independent malster who specializes in local barleys, and Ryan Quinlan, at Great Basin Brewery, to develop several different cheatgrass beers.

Tye's ideas aren't limited to beverages. She points out that agricultural chemicals are rarely used on the wildlands that cheatgrass invades. She plans to use the spends seeds left from the brewing process to produce organic grass fed beef. You'll be able to have an organic grass-fed cheatgrass-finished burger with your cheatgrass beer.

Once they’ve perfected their line of beers and fine-tuned their restoration techniques, Tye and Joe will share their knowledge with other brewers. Tye envisions small breweries across the West harvesting local cheatgrass and producing delicious beers. "I think that Idaho cheatgrass beer would catch on like wildfire," she told Ira Flatow.

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