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Beer barley and more.

Getting The Best On The Shelves Starts In The Laboratory

A voice booms over the public address system "Attention staff, there's a tour in progress."

At the National Agri-Food Technology Centre in Portage la Prairie it's a signal to the research staff to clear their desks.

As we walked through various laboratories and testing areas, desks and benches are clear.

Tours are always announced so that the staff can clear away anything confidential, explains David Shambrock. Since the Centre opened in 1978, it has dealt with more than 1600 proposals from entrepreneurs and companies looking for ways to tempt our tastebuds with new products.

Linda Pizzey's idea is typical. Eighteen months ago she started Country Ovens, selling homemade flax bread in the farmers market in Brandon and Russell. By the end of the summer, sales topped 150 loaves a week. Such interest prompted Pizzey to expand but first she had to find out if an "old wives' tale" was true. Legend, had it that once flax was milled it quickly turned rancid. Researchers in Portage conducted a shelf-life assessment test and concluded that this was false. The Centre also provided a nutritional analysis of the bread.

Today Pizzey sells almost 1,000 loaves a week throughout southern Manitoba and has bold expansion plans. The Centre was a key player in her success. "Without it I would have been stuck," she says. "There's a lot of expertise there which is difficult to find elsewhere."

Shambrock says almost 40 per cent of all inquiries at the Centre are from entrepreneurs. After an idea is discussed, a project proposal is written which outlines what will be done by the Centre and at what cost. If the proposal is accepted, research is started quickly. Shambrock says costs can start at about $7,000 per project. But such professional research can transform a home recipe for pancake syrup into a commercial recipe by providing crucial information. Details such as production costs, packaging details and product shelf life. High-end projects can run up to $100,000 for large corporate customers.

At the back of the research facility is the pilot plant, a 1,000-square-metre manufacturing facility containing an odd mix of machines -- huge stainless steel vats, deep fryers, vegetable peelers, ovens and milk-packaging machines. It is here that would be food barons can test an idea. Shambrock says the essence of the pilot plant is to get manufactured food to the market to see if people will buy it.

Says Shamrock, "We're wide open. If we can see ways to help a company, we'll do it. We have a lot of flexibility."

Food is also the main interest of The Brewing & Malting Barley Research Institute in Winnipeg. Its food is known colloquially as barley sandwich, a cold one, or brew. Beer is a highly-priced, union-made product which takes a lot of ongoing research to perfect.

The Institute is owned by Canada's major three malting companies and the three national breweries. It was set up in 1948 to improve the quality of malting barley, and for the past 44 years it has never changed its focus. Says managing director Dr. Norman Kendall, "All I am here is a testing service. Once the barley is grown commercially, I'm out of it."

Good barley is the basic ingredient of good beer. Following the Second World War the quality of barley grown in Canada had dropped badly. The research institute was set up to turn it around. There is a large community -- including plant breeders, researchers, government agencies and corporations -- involved in the research to develop the best possible barley for suds.

Kendall says each new variety takes 10 to 12 years to develop from the topic of boardroom discussions to actual commercial use for beer.

The top strains must meet many requirements. They need to mature in under 100 days -- the length of the Canadian growing season -- must be disease resistant, have a good enzyme package inside the grain, and must easily absorb water in the malting process.

In order to test the beer-making qualities of different types of barley, the Institute operates Manitoba's third-largest legal brewery, in downtown Winnipeg's Grain Exchange Building.

The beer is not for sale. In fact, most of it is used for tests, including taste tests which, Kendall admits with a smile, pack a wallop.

Packing less of a wallop but soundly nutritious are the products of Manitoba's most unusual dairy located at the University of Manitoba's Fort Garry campus. Every week, dairy manager and instructor Sam Sohal oversees the processing of 9,000 litres of skim milk and chocolate milk. The plant also produces cottage cheese, cream cheese, sour cream, yoghurt and ice cream. "You name it, we've got it," says Sohal. Where does all this food go? To the 16 campus cafeterias, which feed 23,000 people. This captive market yields dividends to the dairy. Sales average $500,000 a year, producing a profit of more than $80,000.

The dairy is part of an integrated operation designed to teach production skills and processes not only to university students, but also to industry personnel from all over Canada who attend the many seminars held each year. The milk comes from 60 cows at Glenlea Farms -- another U of M operation -- which are cared for by the animal-science department.

The dairy does more than just keep the campus supplied -- it also helps entrepreneurs develop new food products. In the last few years it has worked on perfecting commercial goat-milk production; developed feta cheese for a local co-op; perfected a commercial recipe for panir as well as an East Indian cheese, and helped a former student process Manitoba raspberries into a tasty drink.
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Title Annotation:research centers
Author:Buckingham, Carl
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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