AGRICULTURE Department molecular geneticist and barley breeder Chengdao Li is developing a new variety of barley aimed at producing low-calorie beers.
According to Mr Li, it is a common fallacy that beer is fattening.
"Beer contains no fat or cholesterol, although it does contain calories from sugars and alcohol," Mr Li said.
"Combined with evidence that moderate beer drinking can help increase dietary folate, reduce cholesterol, slash the chance of repeat heart attacks, mitigate stress and slow mental degradation in the elderly, beer's true health value begins to emerge."
Mr Li and his Grains Research Development Corporation (GRDC)-supported colleagues at the Agriculture Department are working with Dr Evan Evans of Tasmania University to develop a barley that, when malted for brewing, will produce lower-calorie beers.
Starch comprises 58-65pc of the barley grain and is the source of fermentable sugars in the brewing and distilling industries.
Starch in a barley grain generally contains about 75pc branched amylopectin and 25pc linear amylose.
During the malting and brewing process, the starch is degraded to simple sugars by the concerted action of a-amylases, b-amylases, limit dextrinase and a-glucosidase.
In the past 10 years, the Agriculture Department's Western Regional Barley Breeding program has developed new barley varieties with significantly improved enzyme activity, such as Baudin and Hamelin.
Baudin and Hamelin are becoming the major malting barley varieties on the international markets and the new varieties can increase beer yield and quality.
Barley with high activity and thermostability of the enzyme will improve wort fermentability, increase alcohol production and alter the dextrin profile of the fermented wort, which is important for producing light or low-carbohydrate beer.
It is the key factor to determine the carbohydrate/calories in beer as the dextrins are not fermentable by yeast.
The Agriculture Department's barley breeding program is focused on identifying and characterising new barley varieties with high enzyme activity and thermostability.
Mr Li emphasised that beer was not a "fat" drink.
According to Mr Li:
p A pint of beer has 148 calories
p A light beer has 99 calories per pint
p A glass of dry wine has about 106 calories and a glass of sweet dessert wine has 226 calories
p Soft drink or juice has more calories than beer.
Mr Li said light beer could be made using current barley varieties by modifying brewing technology, as evidenced by the high number of low-calorie and low-carbohydrate beers on the market.
Mr Li said the program's overall breeding target was to develop barley varieties with flexible malting quality to suit different beers.
"We are developing new malting barley varieties to target major international markets, thus the breeding targets may vary with the market," he said.
Mr Li, who confesses that his favourite beer is Hahn light, does not expect the new malting barley varieties to produce beer that tastes different to normal beer.