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Scientists create designer wheat for whisky production

A team of agricultural scientists claim to have bred a type of wheat “specifically to improve whisky production.”

Researchers from Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire have developed wheat that reduces wear and tear on pumps in the distillery, reducing the overal amount of energy needed in the distilling process.

Rothamsted’s Dr Rowan Mitchell said the wheat could even replace corn, which is easier to process.

While single malt Scotch is made from 100% malted barley, many whiskies are made from a mix of malted barley and unmalted cereals such as maize or wheat. The starch in the non-malted cereals is released by pre-cooking and converted into fermentable sugars.

However, wheat often causes distillers problems. Wheat can leave sticky residues during the pre-cooking process, that mean the whole distillery must be shut down for cleaning.

Dr Mitchell said: “At present using wheat grain is a problem for distilleries because it causes sticky residues that mean the whole distillery must be shut down for cleaning.

“Our novel wheat is designed to have grain with low levels of soluble dietary fibre and should greatly decrease these problems. Great for making whisky, but the opposite to what’s required by bakers.”

The wheat was created with a process called Targeting Induced Local Lesions IN Genomes (TILLING), which is an alternative to genetically modifying crops.

The group focused in on genes they discovered that controlled the amount of a chemical found in plant cell walls called arabinoxylan, responsible for soluble fibre levels and what determines its viscosity – whether the liquid extract is thin, or thicker and more difficult to clean.

By using traditional plant breeding methods, they created wheat lines where these genes had stopped working.

The arabinoxylan molecules in these wheat strands were both shorter and fewer in number. As a result, the liquid that is extracted from them is between 50% and 80% thinner compared to wheat without the arabinoxylan.

The researchers are working with plant breeding company Limagrain to develop a new commercial variety.

Co-author Dr Simon Berry, marker specialist at Limagrain, said: “There is going to be a pilot scale test on about a quarter of a tonne of grain at a distillery this year and we are aiming for an official trials entry within the next 5 years.

“Low viscosity wheat would strengthen the continued use of UK wheat in distilling and offer a solution to those distillers still using maize.”

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