Brewing-enthusiast Dr Chris Ridout had little idea when he applied for a BBSRC public engagement grant in 2001 that it might lead him to resurrect a Victorian beer.
Dr Ridout, a crop geneticist at the John Innes Centre (JIC), applied for the initial grant to take some old 'heritage' varieties of barley, essential to produce malt for beer brewing, to a public exhibition in Sunderland after growing them from seed at JIC's Genetic Resources Unit.
Dr Ridout said: "We wanted to grow some old varieties and show them to the public.
"We invited groups of schoolchildren and the general public along to the demonstration basically to show barley came in different varieties. We even brewed some beer which we handed out at an evening event."
However after meeting with brewing expert Dr Keith Thomas of Brewlab at the event, they decided that investigating the properties of the heritage barley varieties that no-longer commercially grown, would be interesting.
With seed saved from the event, A PhD student at Sunderland, Amal Muhammed took on the project. Her work showed that one of the varieties, Chevallier, had a marked resistance to a fungal disease called Fusarium head blight (FHB).
This disease causes damage to barley and wheat, and is a concern in the industry as it reduces both yield and quality of malt.
Further work at JIC confirmed the initial result that Chevallier, a strain which became almost obsolete by the 1920s and which was prized for its malting quality, displayed good disease resistance. Chevallier offered the exciting possibility of combining excellent malting with strong resistance to the disease.
Research funded by a BBSRC CASE award to JIC is being conducted into the genetic basis of the FHB resistance and other Chevallier traits, to investigate if resistance could be bred into high-yielding commercial strains, leading to a cross between Chevallier and a modern elite commercial variety.
Dr Ridout said: "Modern crop breeding produces elite varieties with high yield and good features for modern agriculture. But this constant selection has narrowed the gene pool, which puts the new varieties at risk from changing environments and new races of pathogens.
"There's the old breeding adage of 'cross the best with the best and select the best'. Heritage varieties are a source of genetic diversity and with what we've done by going back to heritage, hopefully it won't take that long to develop modern varieties with desirable traits."
Dr Ridout has now been awarded a £250,000 follow-on-fund from BBSRC to explore the commercial potential of Chevallier and other heritage-derived lines. The results could have an impact on the UK beer market, which is worth more than £18BN annually.
As part of the project he has registered Chevallier as a conservation variety, allowing him to maintain and trade in the seed. Half a tonne of the variety was grown during 2012 and floor-malted by Crisp Malting Group in Norfolk.
A Chevallier beer has been brewed by Stumptail, a local micro-brewery specialising in Victorian-inspired beers. 'Heritage Special Bitter' resurrects an authentic taste that would have been popular when Chevallier was commonly harvested, between 100-150 years ago.
Dr Ridout is keen to see what the response to the beer will be after its launch to coincide with the Campaign for Real Ale AGM in Norwich on April 19.
Working with Plant Biosciences Ltd, the grant will explore the commercial opportunities for heritage varieties and new lines bred from them. In addition to heritage malt evaluation, around 200 lines of the Chevallier cross will be grown to identify those most suitable for subsequent bulk malting and brewing trials.
The work has taken Dr Ridout and his various collaborators a long way from the initial appearance at the public exhibition in Sunderland which kick-started the whole process.
Dr Ridout said: "I've always been quite keen on public engagement and it's something I've tried to do.
"Even at the start of the project I thought something interesting might come out of it but I didn't know what or how.
"It's very surprising. The way things have turned out, it's really quite exciting. "