Toward Better Barley

It's odd how little we talk about barley. Hops we know like our family members--their varieties and properties, how to use them, what changes flavor in our beer, how to grow and dry them. Barley? I doubt one in a hundred people in a bar could name a single strain we grow for malting here in the US. Malting is if anything more mysterious than the barley itself. I have written at length about beer and have even visited a malthouse or two--and yet I have no real idea what distinguishes the way one pale malt is malted from another.

What Americans mainly know is that barley is proto-booze, and the more easily we can smooth the transition from the one state to the next, the better. There's a long piece on genomic research into barley over on Wired, and it has passages like this:

And, maybe most critically, it has to make better malt. ‘That basically goes down to what we call modification rates,’ Hanning says. That’s modifying starch into sugar. His lab and people working with the American Malting Barley Association will grow up new varieties and measure soluble proteins, levels of beta-glucan, free amino nitrogen, enzymes … all qualities that determine how well a barley will turn into a beer.

So, here's the thing: those improvements will make more fermentable barley--but will it be better barley? Brewers obviously want reliably and consistently fermentable barley. But they also may want barley that's flavorful and aromatic; they may like a range of different barleys to make their kölsches, pale ales, and tripels. In both the Czech Republic and Britain, barley varieties are known and purchased by name; they're selected for different properties. In Germany, there are dozens of malthouses, each one selected for different kinds of malt they produce.

In the US ... not so much. One of the characteristic features of American brewing is the way we think of our base malt as basically "sugar"--its sole purpose is to get converted to alcohol. We use specialty malts to color and flavor our beers. We have such a crude understanding of our barley that we just refer to it in the broadest sense--two-row or six-row. If you talk much to European brewers, you realize what an impoverished view this is and how much flavor brewers are leaving on the table.

Fortunately, this is changing--but as with so many things, from the bottom up. Small start-up malthouses have been working with local farmers to produce distinctive malts made from local barleys. This gives brewers a chance to find more flavor in their malt, but also, potentially, introduce a new layer of "place" (use the word terroir if you dare). They're springing up all over the place, too: Cleveland, Asheville, Madras, OR, and on and on. Brewers have begun to experiment with these new barleys and malts, though it is still early days. It took decades for brewers to fully exploit hops, and I have mostly seen breweries using these newer malts the way they have always used malt. We'll know things are changing when we start to see breweries mention barley varieties or malthouses in their beer descriptions.

It's good that scientists and breeders are tinkering with barley strains, and with the weird weather and droughts and floods associated with a warming climate, plenty of reason to look at qualities that don't affect a beer's flavor. But in thinking just about barley's fermentability, they're missing what really makes a good strain--aroma and flavor. That's where the changes are really going to happen in coming years.