Bryn Rawlyk, owner of the Night Oven bakery in Saskatoon, received some purple wheat from local producers and milled it into flour at his bakery. He says he was surprised that the bread itself came out purple, as most natural colourants fade in the oven. (Alex Soloducha/CBC)
Purple wheat currently has niche market in Canada, but seeing increasing popularity overseas
Stumbletown Distilling’s bottles of purple wheat vodka have striking labels to match the colour in their main ingredient — not that you’d be able to guess the contents were anything out of the ordinary by looking at it.
Clear as water, this Saskatoon distillery’s product is made entirely from purple wheat grown in the province and was the first in the world made from the grain, according to owner Craig Holland.
The little-known variety of wheat makes the alcohol a little sweeter, with hints of chocolate, vanilla and Saskatoon berry. That netted it a Platinum SIP Award in 2019, the highest international consumer award it could receive.
Stumbletown’s tasting room is closed right now because of COVID-19, but for those eager to support local, you can still pick it up or order online. Holland said the business’s mission of creating a hyper local product is part of what drew them to purple wheat.
“Once people hear the story and realize that we’re using that grain, not only because it makes a great product but because it was developed in [Saskatoon] … people seem to get behind us a lot more,” he said.
Purple wheat hasn’t made it big as an ingredient in Canadian products quite yet, finding more of its success overseas, but those studying and marketing its health properties — and those growing it on Saskatchewan soil — see great potential in the violet plant with flair.
A product 20 years in the making
The province’s only two registered purple wheat varieties were created at the University of Saskatchewan by Pierre Hucl, a professor and the interim director of the Crop Development Centre.
In the 1990s, he was looking at the colour purple as a potential marker for feed wheat or ethanol production, but later focused on its potential as a food ingredient. Hucl said the source of the purple colour traces back to tetraploid wheat that has grown in the highlands of Ethiopia for thousands of years, and that New Zealand has been using it in multi-grain bread for about 70 already.
After the creation of a new general wheat class, Huckl was able to release it in 2012.
“In plant breeding, and research in general, 95-99 per cent of what you do does not work and plant breeding is all about looking at lots of material and throwing most of it out,” he said. “It’s kind of gratifying to see that something actually worked out.”
In Canada, the first purple wheat was released by Laval University in Quebec in 1980.
Huckl said the Saskatchewan varieties had to be created to withstand the equivalent of the climate in western Siberia and an active growing season of about 90 days.
Studies on the health impacts of purple wheat
Mark Pickard, president of Infraready Products in Saskatoon, which has done most of the marketing for purple wheat, said the original attraction to the grain was its standout colour. It was later determined the colour comes from pigments known as anthocyanins, which are antioxidants also found in fruits and vegetables like beets and Saskatoon berries.
Infraready helped initiate a collaboration between Health Canada, the University of Guelph and the University of Saskatchewan.