Barley may be the most overlooked ingredient in beer, but it plays a critical background role that Oregon State University professor Pat Hayes likens to the bass solo in a song. Additionally, researchers are working on creating new varieties of barley and farm trials are underway. Pictured here is a combine harvesting Rogue’s barley fields last summer. Photo courtesy of Rogue Ales and Spirits
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Of the four ingredients in beer, barley is perhaps the most underrated. It doesn't have the flashiness of hops, with new varieties seemingly coming out every day. It doesn't have the environmental gravitas of water, the most abundant ingredient in beer by volume. It doesn't have the lingering mystique of yeast that harkens back to the time before yeast was a recognized beer ingredient. That leaves barley, the most predominantly used grain for malt, as the often-overlooked ingredient. But just like "no one puts Baby in the corner," barley is deserving of its own time in the spotlight.
While barley tends to get taken for granted, Oregon State University barley breeding and products professor Pat Hayes puts it in perspective saying that, "Without malt there wouldn't be the opportunity to showcase hops and yeast. It plays a critical background role but rarely gets to move to the front." He likens being able to pick the flavor of barley out in a beer to picking out the bass solo out in a song. The comparison is apt because base malts, which are lightly kilned and have low color, don’t provide much flavor. That isn't to say there is no contribution to beer's flavor from malt; in fact, there are a wide variety of specialty malts that do contribute more distinct characteristics. Craft brewers by far use more specialty malts than mainstream, adjunct brewers and have been the primary drivers in the growth and evolution of the specialty malt market.
Before malt is created, barley must be grown, most of which is called spring barley that is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. As an agricultural crop, barley provides some potential challenges for farmers. The revenue per acre for can be lower than what could be made growing other crops, setting up a situation in which it may be replaced with more lucrative crops. In addition, there is a secondary market for barley that doesn’t meet the specifications of malting companies. But that market — animal feed — is priced in favor of other crops, corn in particular, whose price is lamentably low due to national policies. Sadly, it may be cheaper for an Oregon farmer to buy Midwest-grown corn for feed than it is to purchase a neighboring farmer's barley.
Finally, barley grown for malting requires it to be a still-living thing, 99 percent viable, when it arrives to be processed into malt. That viability is influenced by handling during harvest and transport (an extra logistical consideration) as well as the moisture content at the time of harvest. Fall rains can be detrimental to the quality of the barley, a risk that’s minimized when malting companies contract with farmers in diverse geographical areas and supplement their spring barley crop with winter barley, which is typically harvested about a month earlier. Great Western Malting, a historical West Coast supplier to craft brewers, buys barley from northern California up through Washington and east to Idaho and Montana.
The variety of barley each farmer grows is based on the suitability of the climate it's grown in and provides only minor differences that are negated by malting. The process of turning barley into malt can be compared to turning bread into toast, one in which it is the process that is more influential on the finished product than what the starting product was. Great Western Malting produces 30 different types of malts to provide craft brewers with the variety and selection that they seek.
With that said, the starting product — the barley itself — is an area that continues to evolve as well. Researchers like Pat Hayes at Oregon State University are exploring the creation of new varieties of barley, which beyond having the ability of being malted into different types, may actually contribute their own unique flavors to beer. One such exploration is the crossing of Golden Promise, a barley strain that produces a malt craft brewers favor, with Full Pint, a variety that some hope will yield unique flavors. The hybrid creation, called Oregon Promise, is currently being grown in Madras. Oregon State University is in the process of conducting farm trials, moving beyond small plot production and working with industry partners who are starting to make the tiniest batches of beers with the grain.
Digressing slightly, standard batches of barley to be malted range from 30,000-350,000 pounds where as 5-by-20 test plots can be expected to yield only around 11 pounds. There’s no simple way to malt that small of an amount, currently. But that’s not stopping some from figuring out a way to do so, providing researchers with a way to determine whether they’ve gotten the results they were hoping for in the preliminary stages. One such venture is related to Pat Hayes' work in which Wisconsin's New Glarus Brewing Company has been able to develop a process utilizing less than a half a pound of malt to make a batch of beer that is equivalent to a single bottle. There’s a big gap between that highly specialized process and the smallest batch size of 30,000 pounds from Great Western Malting.
Just as craft brewers respond to the demand of consumers, so too is there at least one malting company working to fill the gap in malt batch sizes. A student from Pat Hayes' program is heading to Rahr Malting Company in Minnesota to work on a small scale malting/brewing/analyzing pipeline. The outcome of that work should expedite the exploration of barley’s contribution to beer flavor, starting with the Oregon Promise variety.
Developments like creating new barley strains, malting previously unheard of small batches and making a single-bottle batch of beer are exciting. And it’s things like this that may result in barley becoming the next frontier in craft beer.
For more information, visit the Oregon State University Barley Project site.
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