Why I'm banging on about heritage Barley

We wouldnt have beer without malted barley, yet no-one is talking about this all important ingredient.  Except I am and here's why.

It's this:  for the last 50 years two trends in barley breeding and barley growing have been bad for beer.  Independant brewers and consumers have been the losers and they don't even know it.

Barley has been bred for the last half a century for two factors only:  yield (tonnes/acre) and ability to work with high adjunct brewing techniques.  Every few years new varieties that are better and better at doing these two things have been superceding the previous generation of barley.  It's been going on for generation after generation.

Taking the second characteristic first.  Adjunct is some, usually cheap, fermentable added to a brew to boost the fermentable sugar content.  In Australia it's cane sugar, in Asia, rice, in the US corn syrup and Europe beet sugar.  Corn and rice contain lots of starch but no enzyme, they need the extra enzyme from barley to convert their starches to sugar.  Breeders have steadily selected strains that contain more and more enzyme over time so that big brewers can use less malt and cheaper ingredients in their beer.

Yield is all about the farmer choosing a variety that maximises the size and therefore value of his crop.  I've got nothing against a farmer making this choice but here is the problem:  if you deliberately breed in characteristics that favour certain characteristics over others then you lose the other characteristics that have not been selected.  Let's not beat about the bush here - I am talking about flavour.  Systematically breeding for yield and adjunct compatibility for half a century has cost all of us flavour.  This is not just a beer phenomenon, all industrially produced foods are tracking a vector of increasing flavour neutrality.

If you have tried a beer produced with 100% Maris Otter or Golden Promise - two of the few historical (we're talking 1980's) varieties that there's limited access to - you will know what I'm talking about:  there's just more in the beer - more flavour, more malt, more mouthfeel, it's just better, it's chewy and delicious.

The Heritage barleys were selected and grown because they made fantastic beer.  It's important because its not only a completely different way of deciding what characteristics are important in barley, I'd go as far as to say it's the most important and it's absent in modern barleys.

And today there is simply no reliable access to heritage barley let alone malt.  There's no differentiation in this crucial ingredient between a Carlton Draught and a Stone and Wood Pacific Ale.  Imagine if we only had one choice of hop to put into our beer:  we'd be straight back to the bad old days of beer being distinguished only by which state it was made in.

We're getting close to harvesting our second seed increase of heritage varieties that include Alexis, Maris Otter, Golden Promise, Trumpf, Valticky and more.  We started with literally just a few grains of each seed but all going well, by the end of next winter we'll have enough seed to plant a crop that will mean we can convert all our brewing to heritage malt varieties beginning in 2023. We're a lot closer than you might think to getting beers made from these varieties and not very far away from bringing heritage malt back to the Australian beer market and it's pretty damn exciting.

In future I'll talk more about our timeline and how we'll go about getting malt and beer from these 

1 comment

  • Great post! In my home brews, I only use Maris Otter for my ESBs. Keep up the good work! I especially like your XPA I get at Woolies in Maryborough, but they run out quite often, and hardly ever have the IPA


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