Patagonia Provisions’ newest regenerative innovation: Kernza beers

The commercialization of Kernza Lager, backed by the Patagonia name, provides a case study of investing in regenerative solutions. Find out more.

Amanda Hartt, Researcher | Data Analyst | Strategic Thinker

June 5, 2024

5 Min Read
Patagonia Provisions focused on how Kernza could enhance the flavor of a familiar style: a light-drinking lager.

At a Glance

  • Kernza, a trademarked perennial grain with significant ecological benefits, was developed by Wes Jackson.
  • Patagonia has supported research to continue improving Kernza's qualities and increasing production yields.
  • Several Kernza beers and even a non-alcoholic beer will be released nationwide in the fall.

The standard template for bringing innovative products to market is to focus on trendy new ingredients and formulations to meet shifting consumer health, wellness and diet-related demands. A company’s insights and marketing team helps identify the trends to follow, R&D develops a product and the sourcing department procures the right mix of ingredients to scale. Essentially, information downstream, from the consumer, dictates what is purchased upstream, from the farmer.

However, as the regenerative movement makes a deeper imprint on brand value proposition and sourcing strategy, this logical innovation process is being redesigned, flipped on its head or, in the case of Patagonia Provisions’ innovation with Kernza, reversed.

Kernza’s potential

A trademarked perennial grain with significant ecological benefits, Kernza is the nearly 50-year research project of Wes Jackson, a plant geneticist and environmental visionary who founded The Land Institute in 1976 to breed perennial varieties of wheat, pulses and oilseeds. It’s a long-term investment to transform annual commodity crops into perennial versions with environmental qualities that will respond to the urgency of climate change and soil-degradation issues associated with industrial agriculture.

Related:The Natural List – How 'going green' can reward people and the planet

Kernza has been bred with traits associated with its cousin, wild perennial wheatgrass, to inherit deep, long roots that rebuild soil structure and quality. It has a three-year planting cycle as opposed to annual planting and tillage. It’s meant to be incorporated into diverse rotational farming systems to rebuild soil nutrition, reduce petrochemical input costs and tillage, and have the potential to sequester carbon.

Investing in perennial agriculture

Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia and an environmentalist, took on the urgency of climate change by expanding into food through Patagonia Provisions. Food production is responsible for pervasive environmental degradation, but he also saw the potential to mitigate and reverse externalities foisted onto the ecosystem by transforming food systems.

“Yvon met Wes and was convinced that perennial agriculture was one of the levers that humanity should pull in its efforts to fight the climate crisis and the environmental crisis,” says Paul Lightfoot, general manager of Patagonia Provisions.

Patagonia became a proponent of Jackson’s life’s work and has made sizable donations to The Land Institute, which has been a 1% for the Planet funding recipient since 2015. Chouinard co-founded 1% for the Planet in 2002, asking member companies to commit to donating 1% of annual sales to environmental organizations and nonprofits.

Related:King Arthur Baking Co.’s quest toward 100% regeneratively grown products

Patagonia, through Chouinard’s vision, supported the research to continue improving Kernza qualities and production yields. It has proliferated its cultivation on nearly 4,000 acres, with 100 farmers incorporating it into organic and regenerative farming systems.

Kernza has been bred to inherit deep, long roots that rebuild soil structure and quality. Credit: Land Institute

Commercializing Kernza

Investment in perennial grains as a tool of regenerative agriculture began long before the commercialization of Patagonia Provisions’ Kernza Lager, the result of leaning into its mission, listening to the marketplace and building relationships with thought leaders like Jackson. Years later, the pilot commercialization of Kernza became ready for the marketplace, and Patagonia flexed its unique position to build market demand for the perennial grain first through beer and now pasta.

Why beer? A few natural synergies occurred. “Kernza had a great nutty taste, microbrewers were excited to work with it and Patagonia’s outdoor-enthusiast customers overlap with the beer-drinking demographic,” Lightfoot says.

Instead of creating a flashy new beer, Patagonia Provisions focused on how Kernza could enhance the flavor of a familiar style: a light-drinking lager. “Kernza Lager is a timeless beer that is perfect for customers who crave a refreshing drink after a vigorous adventure on the trails,” Lightfoot says.

Expanding the possibilities

Through experimentation that started with the Long Root Ale launch in partnership with Hopworks Brewery in 2016, there are now 21 brewery partners, including Allagash Brewing Co. and Odell Brewing Co., offering Kernza Lager in taprooms across the U.S. Cans will be rolling out nationally in supermarkets this fall.

At the end of May, Patagonia announced a partnership with Bend, Oregon's Deschutes Brewery to create two new USDA Organic beers made with Kernza: Kernza Lager and non-alcoholic Kernza Golden Brew. Both will be available across the country beginning Sept. 1. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, fewer than 50 U.S. breweries make certified organic beer.

The partnerships have been a way to steward and amplify the environmental and taste benefits of Kernza to the B2B marketplace. The goal is to generate a ripple effect of more breweries and other businesses responding to the call of climate change by sourcing Kernza, thereby expanding its cultivation on farms.

Building upon its success with beer, Patagonia Provisions is already expanding, and a line of Regenerative Organic Certified pasta made with durum wheat and Kernza will be sold at Whole Foods Market stores nationally.

Proving impact

Patagonia Provisions is leaning into Regenerative Organic certification as a path toward rebuilding ecosystems. To demonstrate impact, the company commissioned a lifecycle assessment of Kernza sourced from ROC A-Frame Farm based in Dawson, Minnesota.

According to Lightfoot, the study determined that 1 kg of ROC Kernza from the Minnesota farm draws down from the atmosphere more than 4 kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent. That “compares favorably to conventional wheat, which emits more than 1 kg of CO2e per kg of wheat,” he says.

Chouinard and Patagonia became hooked on Kernza nearly two decades ago. An early investment in reimagining agriculture with perennial varieties requires patience and a long view of new product development, looking ahead 10-plus years versus just short-term one- to three-year innovation pipelines.

Perennial grains are in their infancy, and niche commercialization is the beginning process for further adoption and scaling of this deep-rooted carbon-sequestering tool. Pretty soon Kernza will be featured across a variety of grocery categories, enabling the food sector to regenerate and mitigate climate change.

About the Author(s)

Amanda Hartt

Researcher | Data Analyst | Strategic Thinker

Amanda brings 10+ years of experience in research and consulting roles, working for both SPINS and New Hope Network to track and grow the natural products industry. With an MS in Food Policy, Amanda looks at the dimensionality of marketplace challenges to grow and transform food systems to build thriving communities.

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