Harvesting a Brew: Barley Basics, from Brewer Andrew Bell

As we jump into Harvest Month at The Bruery and The Tasting Room, our staff is dissecting what it takes to harvest all the parts that make up beer. With the number of craft breweries skyrocketing, it’s a wonder barley and hop suppliers can keep up

It’s easy to take the supply & demand of beer ingredients for granted when we’re simply focusing on the enjoyment of a fresh brew, so let’s get to know our beer better in our series of posts on Harvesting a Brew. This first one comes from Bruery brewer Andrew Bell, homebrewer-extraordinaire-gone-pro.

Barley is by and large the biggest harvest-able component of beer. Hops get all the glory, and beer people sometimes grow hops at home, but very rarely have you heard of people growing barley at home. In fact, very few breweries grow barley in the US — two of the few that I can think of off the top of my head are Sierra Nevada and Rogue, and only for a small range of beers.

This is probably due to the fact that raw barley is not particularly useful for beer making. To make it useful in most circumstances, it has to be malted. The malting process is both an art and a science, and is relatively complicated and resource-heavy to do at home, or at an actual brewery, in any large quantity.

That’s why most brewers in the US buy their barely already malted from a variety of different maltsters or distributers. Most brewers in the US are more concerned with the way the malt was processed (kiln toasted, roasted, stewed, etc) and by which maltster, than where the barley was actually from, its type, or how it was harvested. This is a very different take than some brewing traditions in Europe, specifically the UK where they take great pride in their heirloom malt varietals or cultivars like Maris Otter, Optic and Golden Promise, to name a few.

Barley Basics

Malt is what provides the color, body, fermentables that contribute to alcohol, and a lot of a beer’s overall flavor depending on the style. Barley is a great grain for brewing as it has a relatively neutral flavor, a high starch to protein ratio (which means it has a higher extract of sugars than other grains with lower ratios), lots of enzymes, and a husk to help filter the wort through the grain bed.

Malt, one of the four main ingredients in beer, is actually a processed ingredient. Most malts used in beer are from barley. For brewing purposes, there are two types of barley used: two-row, and six-row. As it sounds, two-row barley has two kernels per row on the head vs six kernels per row.

Why use one type over the other? Two-row is plumper, and cleaner tasting, while six-row has a slightly harsher flavor but has more conversion power (diastic power). Six-row also has more protein than two-row, and thus generally a lower gravity yield. It’s also a cheaper commodity than two-row, yet in the US craft brewing industry, malt made from two-row barley is by far the most common.

Photo by Xianmin Chang

Most of the six-row malted barley goes to industrial lager factories as it is cheaper and allows them to more effectively convert the starches in corn and rice. That said, six-row barley is still used by craft brewers, usually after it has been kilned or stewed to create a “specialty malt” such as a Munich style malt or a Crystal/Caramel Malt.

Growing & Harvesting

The vast majority of barley grown for brewing in the US is grown in the Pacific Northwest and Great Plains, specifically in Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon, California, North Dakota, and Colorado. Barley production, like most agricultural goods, is affected by weather and growing seasons. Years with bad crop yield and/or quality can greatly affect prices of malt for us brewers.

Barley is a pretty typical cereal grain crop. In the US, it is mostly grown during the spring and harvested July-September, but also occasionally as a winter crop. Only about a quarter of total barley production gets made into alcoholic beverages. Most barley goes to farms as animal fodder, some to baking and Pharmaceutical industries. The barley that is intended for malting is of a higher standard than animal fodder and commands a higher price, and is more costly to produce because the yield per acreage is lower.

Once the barley is harvested from the farm, it is selected by the maltsters to go through the malting process. The malting process can be broken down into three main steps (that usually take 5-10 days to complete).

The Malting Process

The first step is steeping the raw barley in warm water for a period of hours to days to rehydrate the kernel and promote enzyme activity and begin to start the next step, which is the germination process where the kernel begins to sprout and the enzymes convert some of the protein and carbohydrates in the kernel to sugar.

The germination process and the growth of the acrospire (called modification) are a very controlled process. Once the maltster is happy with the degree of modification, they stop the process by drying the malt in a kiln.

Stage three of the malting process is kilning, which is where the maltsters determine the flavor and color profile they want from the malt. Base malt (what makes up the vast majority of a beer) is kilned at around 180-190° F to produce a neutral flavor and light color. Specialty or character malts can be toasted at higher temperatures (as is the case for malts such as Munich, Vienna or Victory), or roasted to create dark malts (such as Chocolate Malt or Black Patent). Malt may also be stewed (allowed to keep some of their moisture content at temperature) to create Crystal or Caramel malts.

These three steps of the malting process can be tailored to produce certain properties of the finished malt such as the Lovibond (or color of the malt), its power to convert starches to sugars that the yeast can eat, as well as its overall flavor. I could go further into this process, but I don’t want to bore you with terms like endosperm, degrees lintner and alpha-amaylase.

More Grains, More Malting Methods

The malting process does not just apply to barley alone. Other cereal grains such as wheat, rye, oats, spelt, and rice can be malted to create their own unique flavors. Unmalted barley can also be used in beer, although usually in small amounts. Commonly, regular unmalted barley is used a bit like unmalted wheat in beer, to provide a more intense graininess and increase head retention. Roasted, unmalted barley is also used in darker beers such as stouts, and produces a sharp, slightly burnt flavor to some beers.

There are some notably unique brewing/malting cultures outside the US that are worth mentioning briefly. Traditionally, malt used to brew Pilseners in Europe was not fully modified, and thus had less potential extract as well as not having all the proper enzymes to convert the necessary starches into sugars. One way to solve this was to perform a somewhat tedious mashing technique called decoction. As malting practices and science have improved over the years, and malts usually arrive at breweries fully modified, decoction mashing has fallen out of favor throughout most of the world, except parts of the Czech Republic with traditional Pilsener brewers.

There are also some breweries and homebrewers in the US that buy intentionally undermodified Moravian Pilsner malt and use decoction mashes to try to get as close as possible to the authentic Pilseners. Before malting advances developed during the industrial revolution, barley was traditionally dried or kilned over fires, imparting a robust smoke flavor, and most beers had a smoked character from these malts. Nowadays, most beers do not have that smoked character, although there are certain places in Europe, including some traditional Scandinavian brewing traditions and some breweries in Bamberg Germany that still smoke a large portion of their malt.

In the United Kingdom, there’s a very strong emphasis and tradition behind malt. Traditional brewing culture in England seems to prize specific barley varietals much more highly than in the US. Maris Otter, Golden Promise and Optic are not types of malt, but actual certain varieties of raw barley. Labor intensive, traditional floor malting is more common, as were breweries owning their own malting companies in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Our Love Affair with Malted Barley

One of my favorite beers when I was really getting into craft beer was one from Fuller’s Brewing in London called Vintage Ale. In the US we would call the beer an English Strong Ale, essentially a lower strength barleywine. Fuller’s started brewing Vintage Ale in 1997 as a showcase of the British “Champion” malt and hop varietal of each year (yes, champion does imply a malt competition). I have been lucky enough to have all the vintages since 1997, and my personal favorite is the 2000 Vintage that used Champion Optic Malt and Target Hops.

At The Bruery we use a lot of malt, both from barley and other grains. We buy it by the 2,000 lb. pallet load, or 48,000 lbs silo fill. Our silo contains our two-row base malt, grown and malted in the Pacific Northwest, that we use in most of our beers. As far as our full malt inventory, we currently have over 70 different types of malts from 14 different maltsters sourced from the US, Germany, France, Belgium, UK, and Argentina. I must also add that there is quality malt being produced in other countries (notably Canada), but they are not currently in our inventory.

Photo via California Through My Lens

Besides barley we also use a lot of rye for beers like Sour in the Rye and Smoking Wood, as well as wheat in Hottenroth, White Oak Sap, and our Sour Blonde that becomes Rueuze, and oats in some beers.

We make some pretty big beers at The Bruery, and that involves manually adding lots of malted barley into our oversized mash tun. What goes in has to come out by hand, with shovels, several times a day, by yours truly and the other brewers. Our spent grain goes into bins and is sent off to a dairy farm while that sugary barley-water goes you know where.

Barley is an oft overlooked ingredient in beers. It affects so much of the color, aroma and flavor of the beer in your glass, so next time you sit down for a beer give a mental shout-out to the all the little endosperms, rootlets, aleurone layers, and hulls that went to work to become that beer.

If you’re a brewer or homebrewer interested in learning more about malt usage in beer, I’d suggest our friend John Palmer’s website HowToBrew.com

Post written by Andrew Bell, one of our brewers who you may also know as a very talented local homebrewer, since he has been practicing the art of fermented barley water before he was even 21.

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