Cornell University researchers believe rhubarb could be New York state’s next big thing. A little sour, a little sweet, a tiny bit vegetal: It could be a significant boon to the state’s wines, beers, distilled spirits and hard ciders.

Christine Smart, a professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, and her team hope to develop rhubarb cultivars with many different flavors and colors, working with Chris Gerling at Cornell’s Craft Beverage Institute to trial different varieties in craft beverages.

“In talking with growers, chefs and craft beverage producers, they are all looking for a crop that adds value to their products. For growers, it’s an early crop that is quite popular; for chefs it’s a great ingredient and can add a unique angle to craft beverages,” Smart said.

The project is entering its third year, and the team has over 50 unique rhubarb genotypes planted. They have 100 plants each of four different cultivars – Crimson Red, Canada Red, MacDonald and Victoria – spread down 300-foot rows of raised beds at the AgriTech campus in Geneva. This is the first year the stalks can be harvested for use.

Smart and her team are growing it with the goal of advancing rhubarb production in the Northeast, said Libby Indermaur, a doctoral student in Smart’s lab.

“Our main goals are to identify cultivars or develop our own breeding lines that would be good for craft beverages, to have our own supply that is commercially viable, and to provide more information about rhubarb to growers,” she said.

But are there growers, food producers or craft beverage makers in New York champing at the bit for more rhubarb? Smart and team think so, pointing to a large pie producer in the state that sources its rhubarb from Poland because supplies are meager closer by, and to New York craft beverage producers like Star Cider in Canandaigua, Montezuma Winery in Seneca Falls and Embark Craft Ciderworks in Williamson that have dabbled in rhubarb-inflected options.

There are some logistical challenges to work out: One is processing, Gerling said. It’s too fibrous for traditional juicers, so harvesting the juice can be tricky. The experts recommend freezing the rhubarb first, then thawing it and running it through an accordion-like benchtop juicer often used for apple cider.

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