Americans and Canadians are hearing more and more about a long-established invasive plant called cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), especially after this year’s fire season out west. What’s the connection? Among other problems, cheatgrass helps contribute to a longer fire season and more destructive fires, which may worsen in the future because this invasive grass seems to benefit from climate change. Recently, NPR Science Friday featured an interview with several scientists and land managers about the ecological and economic effects of cheatgrass invasion. My ears really perked up when I heard that cheatgrass can be used to make beer! Read on, and then gather your brewing equipment while listening to the podcast of the interview (which is very easy to understand and features questions from the public audience).
Cheatgrass is native to Eurasia, and was introduced to the USA in the late 1800s, probably via ship ballast (here is a brief history of cheatgrass). Interestingly, cheatgrass may have first spread to the West because it was used as a packing material for railroad cars. It easily established because the native herbaceous species had been greatly reduced by intensive livestock grazing, which cheatgrass can better tolerate. Cheatgrass, like other invaders that we have mentioned on this website, produces huge amounts of seed (more than 5000 seeds per square meter- nearly 500 pounds of seed per acre!) which helps to maintain its dominance once established. Cheatgrass also out-competes native species because it germinates earlier in the season.
And what about cheatgrass and wildfires? As explained in the NPR podcast, cheatgrass senescences (stops its growth and dries up) 4- 6 weeks earlier than the native species, increasing the length of the fire season. Cheatgrass is also incredibly flammable. Invasion by cheatgrass and subsequent fires eliminate the native sagebrush communities, and the 50 or so animal species that rely on this community type, such as the sage grouse.
One method of controlling cheatgrass is to heavily graze with goats or sheep. Another way is to re-establish the (perennial) native plant community, and to use biocontrol, such as a fungus which only infects cheatgrass. As another of our recent posts emphasized, native species are best controlled with multiple methods simultaneously.
And what you have been waiting for… a final way to control cheatgrass (on a small level) is to turn the seeds into beer! It is described as an amber ale, of a little over 5%. Ira Flatow (the show’s host) says it is delicious! Listen in to the podcast about fifteen minutes from the end, to get some detailed descriptions of the taste and some tips on how to start producing. And be prepared for puns (“I think that Idaho cheatgrass beer would catch on like wildfire.”)