Malts (Barley)

In the world of beer-making, grains are more than just an ingredient; they are the cornerstone of the entire process. They’re responsible for the taste, smell, appearance, and even the texture of the beer. But it’s not just any grain that holds this esteemed role; it’s specifically barley that wears the crown.

Let’s look at why barley is such a favorite. You see, barley is like the Swiss Army knife of grains when it comes to brewing beer. It comes packed with starch, which can be turned into sugar, providing the essential fuel for yeast to produce alcohol. Barley even has its own enzymes to make this conversion happen. On top of that, barley has proteins that keep the yeast healthy, ensuring a successful fermentation process. Its husks have the unique ability to act as a natural filter during brewing, a benefit that anyone who’s struggled with a clogged brewing system will appreciate. The attributes of barley are so perfectly aligned with the requirements of brewing that some experts speculate its domestication around 10,000 years ago was specifically for beer-making.

Now, the part of the barley plant that brewers are interested in is the grain, or kernel. Barley is actually a type of grass, and these kernels grow in clusters, or ears, on the plant. And not all barley kernels are the same. Generally, brewers use either two-row or six-row barley. In two-row barley, you’ll find one large, starchy kernel at each node of the cluster, whereas in six-row barley, there are three smaller kernels at each node, which are higher in protein but lower in starch.

Here’s how to think about it: If a brewer wants to make a beer with a richer taste and more alcohol, they’ll probably opt for two-row barley, which is starchier. On the other hand, if they’re looking to make a beer that requires a lot of enzymes to break down other ingredients, then six-row barley, which is protein-rich, would be the way to go.

So, the next time you enjoy a refreshing beer, take a moment to appreciate barley, the unassuming grass that has been humanity’s brewing companion for thousands of years.

History of Brewing With Malts

An Artist's Dream in Pompeii. 1877. an Engraved Drawing by Sydney Hall

An Artist's Dream in Pompeii. 1877. an Engraved Drawing by Sydney Hall

The history of malt in brewing is a fascinating journey that spans centuries and civilizations. It takes us back to the ancient world where the art of converting barley into malt was born, a process fundamental to beer making today. It’s like the origin story of your favorite superhero, but for beer enthusiasts. The malt’s transformation over time shows how ingenuity and innovation have been integral to the brewing industry.

Imagine our ancestors thousands of years ago, huddled around a fire, accidentally discovering that water-soaked grains, when left out, begin to sprout. Not only did they sprout, but they also tasted sweeter. These sprouted grains were the first form of malt.

In the ancient annals of human history, our forebears stumbled upon the enchanting transmutation of malted grains into a libation of unparalleled allure. Circa 4000 BCE, the Sumerians, inhabitants of the fertile crescent, discovered the mystical art of malting, wherein they exposed grains to moisture and heat, thus initiating the germination process. This germination bequeathed the grains a panoply of enzymatic powers, rendering them amenable to the subsequent mashing process. By 3500 BCE, the Sumerians, adept at harnessing this enzymatic prowess, had mastered the alchemical fusion of malt, water, and fermentation, thereby pioneering the rudiments of brewing.

Subsequent millennia bore witness to the diffusion of brewing knowledge, as it traversed geographical bounds and cultural contours. The Egyptians, circa 3000 BCE, enshrined their reverence for brewing in hieroglyphs and pottery, illuminating the centrality of beer to their societal tapestry. Meanwhile, in ancient Mesopotamia, the Code of Hammurabi, etched around 1754 BCE, unveiled the regulatory framework governing the taverns and the esteemed position of brewsters.

As the centuries rolled on, beer-making became more than just a homemade affair. Celtic and Viking brewers got in on the action, perfecting the art of malting barley. Imagine them gathered around open fires, experimenting with drying germinated barley at different temperatures. What they discovered was groundbreaking: varying the heat could give you malts that were light or dark, subtly flavored or richly complex, and this changed the game for beer lovers of the time.

As we move forward in time, around the 12th century, monasteries become significant centers for brewing. These sanctuaries of knowledge meticulously documented brewing practices, codifying recipes and techniques in illuminated manuscripts. It was the Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen, a beacon of medieval scholarship, who, in the 12th century, expounded upon the curative virtues of hops, bestowing upon beer both flavor and preservation. This revelation heralded the advent of hopped beer, an innovation that reverberates through time to this day.

Fast forward to the Renaissance, where science finally stepped into the brewhouse. Now, maltsters had tools like kilns that allowed for precise control over how the barley was dried. Think of it as a painter getting more colors for their palette. With the capability to manage the heat and timing, maltsters could create pale malts, amber malts, and dark malts with ease. This newfound control allowed brewers to dial in specific tastes and hues for their beers.

The industrial revolution kicked things up another notch. Imagine a world where gears, steam, and machinery began to transform every industry, including brewing. Innovations like the drum malting system made it easier to produce consistent and diverse types of malt. The invention of the malt mill expedited the extraction of fermentable sugars, while the steam engine ameliorated temperature control during mashing and boiling. These advancements streamlined production and bolstered the consistency of beer flavor profiles.

The confluence of scientific insights and technological breakthroughs during the 19th and 20th centuries ushered in an era of unparalleled transformation. Louis Pasteur’s seminal work on yeast and fermentation elucidated the microbiological underpinnings of brewing, amplifying quality control measures. The advent of microbiology laboratories and the adoption of pure yeast cultures standardized fermentation, obviating the unpredictability of wild yeasts.

In the contemporary milieu, the craft beer renaissance has rekindled an ardor for traditional brewing methods. Craft brewers, mirroring the ethos of their forebears, resurrect age-old techniques while imbuing them with a contemporary twist. This resurgence celebrates the artisanal, the innovative, and the locally rooted, all while harkening back to the historical journey that bestowed upon us the ambrosial elixir we now call beer.

The historical timeline of brewing malt unfurls as a testament to human ingenuity and cultural dynamism. From the rudimentary malting practices of ancient Sumer to the microorganisms scrutinized in modern laboratories, the chronicle of brewing malt mirrors the ebb and flow of civilizations, the marriage of tradition and innovation, and the enduring allure of the libation that has accompanied humanity’s odyssey through time.

Barley - The Key cereal Grain

The Ethiopian highlands climate is ideal for growing barley - photography by Monne Tuinhout

Barley growing in Ethiopia

Barley, scientifically known as Hordeum sativum, is a key cereal grain that primarily grows in temperate climates. Originating from its wild ancestor, H. spontaneum, in western Asia, barley has been a staple crop for thousands of years. There are three main types of barley, each with its own characteristics and uses.

The first type is two-rowed barley, also known as H. sativum subsp. distichum. This variety is the closest to its wild ancestor and is mostly grown in places like the British Isles and central Europe. It’s especially good for making malt, an ingredient crucial for brewing beer. The grains grow in two straight lines along the stalk, and the kernels are plump and tightly packed. Some sub-varieties of this type include peacock barley, with grains that fan out like a peacock’s tail, and erect-eared barleys, which have upright ears full of dense grains.

The second type is six-rowed barley or H. sativum subsp. hexastichum. Unlike the two-rowed variety, all of its grains are fertile and grow in six straight lines along the stalk. This type is hardy but is less common in places like Great Britain because the grains are thin and coarse, making it less suitable for brewing.

The third type is four-rowed barley, known as H. sativum subsp. vulgare. This one has a unique arrangement where the grains don’t grow in straight lines but appear more scattered. This type is also less common for brewing, as it has more protein and less starch, making it less ideal for malt production.

Some other noteworthy varieties include naked barley, which sheds its outer layer easily, and Himalayan barley, known for its shorter awns or bristles. These varieties aren’t usually used for brewing but have other uses like food and livestock feed.

Barley is an incredibly versatile grain that grows in various climates, from the chilly regions of the far north to the warmer sub-tropical zones. It’s often considered one of humanity’s oldest foods—a belief backed by its discovery in ancient Swiss lake settlements dating back to the Stone Age. This evidence suggests that barley has been nourishing us for a very long time.

Researchers have identified three main types of ancient barley. There’s the common two-rowed variety, the large six-rowed one, and the small six-rowed one, which is often considered the oldest and most sacred. This last type was so revered in ancient times that you can even find it depicted in artwork featuring Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. It also appears on old coins and is mentioned in ancient Egyptian texts.

In the past, people in northern countries relied heavily on barley as a food source, and some still enjoy barley cakes today. However, barley isn’t as rich in gluten—a type of protein found in abundance in wheat—which limits its use in certain foods like bread. Nonetheless, it remains a vital and resilient crop that has stood the test of time.

Barley is primarily grown for the process of malting, which involves converting the starches in the grain into sugars. This malted barley is a key ingredient for making alcoholic beverages like beer and spirits. However, barley is not just for drinks; it’s also a popular choice in home cooking. For culinary uses, people generally opt for the harder, more dense form of barley grains, which are prepared by removing the outer layer—this version is called “pot barley.”

If you take this a step further and polish the grains down to small, round pellets, you get “pearl barley.” You can even find barley in flour form, which is known as “patent barley.” Beyond its role in the kitchen and the brewery, barley has some medicinal uses as well. In the British Pharmacopoeia, there’s a barley preparation called “decoctum hordei,” which is recommended as a soothing beverage for those dealing with fevers or inflammatory conditions. So, from your pint glass to your soup bowl to your medicine cabinet, barley serves a variety of purposes.

Barley - Two-Row or Six-Row

Two rowed and six rowed barley

Two rowed and six rowed barley

The morphology of barley (Hordeum vulgare) plays a pivotal role in determining its suitability for brewing purposes. The arrangement of spikelets along the rachis of the barley ear, whether in the form of two-row or six-row barley, influences various factors crucial to the brewing process. This discussion delves into the differences between these two barley types, shedding light on their spikelet arrangements and the subsequent implications for brewing.

Spikelet Arrangement and Fertility: Barley, a staple cereal grain used in brewing, exhibits distinct variations in its spikelet arrangement. In its wild form, barley showcases a distinctive pattern wherein six spikelets are arranged in triplets along the rachis of the ear. Notably, only the central spikelet within each triplet is fertile, while the other two remain sterile. This arrangement has persisted in the cultivars known as two-row barleys, giving rise to the appearance of two distinct rows of grains along the length of the ear. The synchronicity of this arrangement offers a visual semblance to the rows of corn, each flanking the ear on either side.

Mutation and the Emergence of Six-Row Barley: The transformation from two-row to six-row barley hinges on a singular genetic mutation within the barley genome. This mutation triggers the development of fertile lateral spikelets in addition to the central fertile spikelets, thereby resulting in the distinctive arrangement of six rows of grains along the rachis. Intriguingly, within each set of six grains, four exhibit a slightly narrower profile compared to the remaining two. Moreover, these smaller grains manifest a distinctive twist as they mature, stemming from their specific position on the rachis.

Brewing Implications of Spikelet Variation: The implications of spikelet variation extend beyond mere morphology and encompass pivotal considerations within the brewing process. The brewing industry prioritizes grains with optimal starch and protein content, as these factors significantly influence alcohol potential and the overall brewing process. In this context, six-row barley presents a distinct challenge. The smaller grains inherent to the six-row arrangement possess a lower starch content and higher protein content. Consequently, the potential for alcohol production is diminished, and the balance required for successful brewing may be disrupted.

Furthermore, the milling process within the brewhouse is optimized when the malted grains exhibit uniformity in size. However, the inherent diversity in corn size within six-row barley impedes this uniformity, rendering it less attractive to brewers. The challenge lies in achieving an ideal grist, a coarsely ground mixture of malt and adjuncts, which is pivotal for the mashing process.

Economics, Supply Chain, and Decision-Making: The choice between two-row and six-row barley is a complex decision influenced by a myriad of economic and supply chain considerations. The journey from the farm to the glass entails multifaceted dynamics that dictate the type of barley cultivated for malting and brewing. While the brewing industry gravitates towards the qualities of two-row barley for its advantageous brewing attributes, the agronomic yield for farmers might favor six-row varieties. This presents a fascinating interplay between brewing suitability and agricultural viability.

Geographical Variations: The prevalence of two-row and six-row barley varies across geographical regions. In Europe, the predominant preference tilts towards two-row varieties. Occasionally, a six-row variety may emerge from breeding programs, exhibiting competitive potential for a limited period before being overshadowed by superior alternatives. Conversely, in the United States and other parts of the world, six-row barley has found its niche and thrived within the realms of malting and brewing.

In conclusion, the choice between two-row and six-row barley transcends mere spikelet arrangements. It encompasses a tapestry of considerations that shape the dynamics of the brewing industry. While the brewing process favors the uniformity and optimal attributes of two-row barley, the agricultural aspect and economic nuances may tip the scales in favor of six-row varieties. This duality underscores the intricate relationship between scientific understanding, brewing craftsmanship, and economic pragmatism within the realm of barley cultivation and its role in brewing.

Barley - Winter or Spring


In barley cultivation, the choice between sowing winter and spring varieties is a critical decision influenced by diverse factors, ranging from climatic conditions to agronomic benefits. This article delves into the distinctions between these two approaches, elucidating the reasons behind their selection, advantages, and drawbacks. While winter varieties endure the chilling embrace of winter, spring varieties flourish under more favorable conditions. This study aims to humanize and simplify the discourse surrounding this topic, making it accessible to a wider audience.

Winter Varieties:
Challenging the Cold: Winter barley varieties, as the name implies, brave the harshness of winter. These varieties are sown during autumn, a timing that allows them to establish their roots before the onset of winter. However, it’s important to note that not all regions are suitable for cultivating winter varieties. Severe continental winters can prove fatal for most barley types, given that barley lacks the resilience to withstand extreme cold. Consequently, nations situated within continental land masses tend to lean towards the cultivation of spring barley varieties due to their susceptibility to milder winters.

Advantages of Winter Varieties: The cultivation of winter varieties offers several agronomic advantages. Notably, these varieties contribute to augmented yields and expedited harvesting. The early harvest schedule facilitates the timely sale of the crop, leading to prompt payment. Moreover, the utilization of combining equipment is prolonged, and the land becomes available for early tillage for subsequent crops. This orchestrated sequence optimizes both equipment and manpower utilization. Furthermore, it paves the way for sowing the subsequent crop—such as high-yielding winter wheats—at the opportune moment. An additional ecological advantage of covering arable land over winter is the reduction of nitrogen runoff into watercourses, thus promoting sustainable farming practices.

Drawbacks of Winter Varieties: However, the benefits of winter varieties come hand in hand with certain downsides. Winter crops remain exposed to diseases for a longer duration due to their extended growth period. Consequently, the necessity for additional fungicide treatments arises, unless the crops are engineered to possess inherent resistance. This requirement for disease management adds an extra layer of complexity to winter variety cultivation.

Spring Varieties:
Tapping into Timeliness: In contrast, spring barley varieties are sown in the spring, aligning with more favorable weather conditions. This timing enables optimal germination and growth. Spring barley varieties present a unique advantage in terms of weed control. The existence of weeds like blackgrass, which is closely related to barley and cannot be selectively eradicated, necessitates a strategic approach. Allowing these weeds to germinate on fallow soil over winter provides an opportunity to utilize a broad-spectrum weed killer in the spring, before sowing barley as the primary commercial crop.

Maximizing Spring Varieties: To maximize the yield potential of spring varieties, early sowing is paramount. However, this process is contingent upon the conclusion of severe cold weather and the readiness of the land for machinery operations. The delicate balance between climate conditions and land preparation underscores the intricate nature of spring variety cultivation.

 In summation, the choice between winter and spring barley varieties is a multifaceted decision driven by climatic realities and agronomic considerations. Winter varieties offer higher yields and advanced harvesting, yet demand increased disease management efforts. Spring varieties provide precise weed control opportunities, contingent upon optimal timing. Both options have their merits and challenges, shaping the narrative of barley cultivation. Understanding these distinctions empowers farmers to make informed choices that align with their specific circumstances, contributing to the sustenance of a vital agricultural industry.

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