Barley - A Brief Biography

We here at Windermere Brewing Co. are self admitted history geeks, and for every book we read on the brewing process & recipe formulation, we probably read five more about the history of how we got to a certain process or style. Brewing in our opinion is what the alchemist should have truly been seeking after, turning raw ingredients into that liquid gold the entire world has come to cherish. One of our favorite and most respected historians of beer was the late Michael Jackson (no not the one you are thinking of). Jackson was truly the bard of beer and in his 1977 classic “The World Guide to Beer” brought an entire catalog of styles by region to the imagination of the masses and showed us what beer is and still can be. In our opinion this book should be on every beer lovers shelf still. The reason we mention Jackson is that for our short crash course in this article on the short biography of the coveted grain barley, we will extensively quote Jackson and hopefully bring his genius to a new audience.

Babylonian text in reference to barley distribution

Babylonian text in reference to barley distribution

Brewing is ancient, it existed before written language and many historians agree that it may have been why our early ancestors began domesticating the barley crop. We know that Barely most likely came from “a wild grass called Hordeum spontaneum”, which was domesticated and utilized for brewing long before written history. Around “3,000 years BC” we know that brewing was a burgeoning industry due to the many “Babylonian texts that actually discuss the suitability of different barley for different types of beers” along with accounting ledgers that recall beer transactions.

The brewing process in Ancient Egypt

The brewing process in Ancient Egypt

We also have Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics that depict in 23 scenes the process of “first baking malted grains into loaves, which they then crumbled in water to make brewing mash”. This raises an interesting question, why didn’t they just eat the baked loaves of what we would assume was palatable bread? Well Jackson addresses this by writing “The idea that beer may have pre-dated bread is not unreasonable. It is difficult to make acceptable bread with barley, because the gluten content of the grain is so low, and the loaves do not hold together well”. As we know, barley was the first domesticated crop and wheat came later. Wheat of course has the ability to hold bread together and is the grain of choice for the baker. Therefore, for the almost entirely of human history the brewer and the baker where both noble professions utilizing a similar process to create a palatable finished product. While there are many styles of beers that utilize wheat such as the hefeweizen, barley is still king in the majority of beer styles.

The Structure of Barley

The Structure of Barley

So, why does Barley work so well in the brewing process? Well it comes down to thermal reaction. The entire process of brewing revolves around the brewer utilizing a specific temperature of heated water to allow the enzymes in malted barley to produce the sugar needed in finished wort for our best friends yeast to consume and make into that coveted alcoholic beverage of the ages. In addition, the “husk also provides a useful filter aid during the separation of wort from the spent grain in the brewing process”. Wheat and Rye although used in the brewing process are much more finicky to work with due to their thermal reaction characteristics and husk-less nature. If you are a brewer, you may have run into the dreaded stuck or slow mash with these two types of malted grains. 

Today, through years of cultivation and modification (both natural and forced), barley has become an extremely reliable grain with malsters producing very good malt that brewers today don’t need to dive into some of the dreaded mash techniques of the past, even though some do out of nostalgia and some swear that it's the only way to brew certain styles. We will leave that argument for another day. We get great products from the United States, Europe, and South America. While modern technology and advanced processes have made brewing a consistent and automatic process, the history and even the genome of the king of brewing crops is still there in every pint. Next time you sit down in your local taproom, contemplate that for a minute as you enjoy a beverage that is as old as history itself.

Resources:

Jackson, M. (1977). The World Guide to Beer. Rexdale, Ontario, Quarto.