Beer…..a word synonymous with the Australian summer. Scotch…..a word synonymous with the Scottish highlands and the nations national tipple. Vodka….. a word synonymous with icy cold Russia.
No matter how you drink it, barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) is at the heart of some of the tastiest beverages that we drink today. As a crop species barley has been grown continuously for the last 10,000 or so years. Originally from the fertile crescent (a region encompassing parts of modern day Syria and Iraq) it is now cultivated globally in countries such as Finland and Canada which could not be more different from the arid areas of its origin.
Fun fact #1: Barley and wheat originated in the same region during the same period.
As a crop species, modern day barley cultivars could not be more different from their ancestors 10,000….. or even 100 years ago. Original barley cultivars or the wild types that our ancestors grew would have had no more than a few small, shriveled grains. Today’s barley varieties are hugely different, the grain filled heads have large numbers of grains and are usually so heavy that the stem bends over due to the weight. Improvements in barley is a result of breeding, originally our ancestors would have seen one plant that was better and gave more grain than the rest and thus grain was kept from the plant and sown in the next season. The essence of breeding has not changed substantially within the last 10,000 years, we still are looking for the best plant, which might be the highest yielding or the most disease resistant. What has changed however is the method with which we identify these better cultivars. Nowadays we use our understanding of barley genetics and genes that control specific traits (e.g yield) to develop superior cultivars.
Fun fact #2: Barley is not just used in brewing and distilling, but is also used for animal feed and is often an ingredient in some tasty salads.
Modern day barley has a number of commercial uses. Most people will think of barley as being the precursor to beer or whiskys (Scotch in particular). However barley is also an important food source for both animals and humans, as it was when it was first cultivated all those years ago. Feed barley is an important source of protein and nutrients for livestock which are destined for the plates of millions of people worldwide, often prior to slaughtering livestock are supplementary fed feed barley to increase their weight. Barley is also used for human consumption, mostly in salads and stews and this comprises a very small amount of total barley harvested each year. In terms of production usage, barley for the purpose of feeding livestock uses the vast majority of barley harvested globally.
Brewing and distilling barley to wet our throats is often considered the best use of barley by many. Barley cultivars differ in their end use, some are high yielding but have a low starch content and are better for feed whereas higher starch content barley cultivars are better for brewing. Essentially brewing involves using barley (but also other grains) as a source of starch for fermentation by yeast. Archaeological evidence indicates that brewing had begun as far back as the 6th millennium BC and the process similar to breeding will not have changed significantly. Water, a starch source (barley), yeast and hops (act as flavouring) are essentially the only four ingredients needed to make beer.
Fun fact #3: Different hops used in the brewing process create different flavour profiles in the beer, these could be chocolaty or even flowery notes.
Distillation to produce Scotch whisky and many other grain based spirits (vodka, gin) is another highly valued use of barley. Distillation involves the processes of fermenting the barley grains similar to the process in brewing but without the hops. The grain spirit produced during this process is then heated and condensed through a still a number of times to give a final alcohol concentration in the product of 94% by volume. As it stands this spirit is essentially vodka, typically the alcohol will be diluted down to 40% for commercial sale. Producing Scotch involves the maturation process, the grain spirit is held in wooden casks for years which provides a particular Scotch with its colour and flavour profile as the essence of the wood seeps into the alcohol.
Fun fact#4: Only whisky produced in Scotland can be called Scotch, and it is a legal requirement that Scotch matures in the cask for a minimum of 3 years.
There is more to barley than you might have originally thought. It is a grain that has been utilised for many thousands of years and it is not just used to produced beverages to quench our thirst…..even though some may think this the most important use of the crop. Our current understanding of barley genetics and breeding will ensure we can continue to enjoy a beer or dram for many more thousands of years.