Barley Varietals Are Becoming More Definable in Flavor and Chemistry!

The flavor of beer has many elements – barley, hops, and yeast. Some in the malting industry lament that barley has not received its due when it comes to imparting beer flavors. Hops has been the center of conversation over the past few years.

Whatever your perspective, beer is about agronomics – same with wine. More than terroir, agronomics is inclusive of farming practices — fertilizing, grain density, irrigation, climate, and fungicides. Same can be said about wine grapes. Nonetheless, growing cereal barley for malting is more than simply putting seed in the ground, watering, and hoping mother nature cooperates.

Like most historical aspects of the U.S. beer industry, it was the European immigrants who made it happen, primarily those who came from Germany. Brewers like Anheuser-Busch, Ruhstaller, and Coors have European roots. Hop farmers were also immigrants who settled in New York, California, and the Northwest. Barley in the U.S. has a long immigrant involved history. In the late 1800’s Sacramento, with a large German immigrant population, was a major barley and hops growing region and, at the time, was home to the largest brewer West of the Mississippi River.

Because mass production brewers own their barley production and malting operations, many local private maltsters cater to Craft Brewers, who are true “crafters” of quality beers – Samuel Adams, Alaska Brewing, Firestone Walker, Stone Brewing, Sierra Nevada, Maine Brewing Co., etc.

Some private maltsters are large operations such as Rahr Malting, which is privately owned and have been malting since 1847. Like many old timers’ William Rahr was a German immigrant. Over the last decade many producers have been acquired by other international entities. About a year ago Cargill agreed to sell their malting operation to Axéréal of France.

In conversations with malting companies it is apparent the business requires a lot of capital. It is a fact that malting companies must cater to the small brew pubs and even the homebrewers as that is where larger micro brewers get started making their own flavors of beer.

It’s All About Innovation Through Chemistry

Innovative craft beer flavors are not simply the act of mixing: malts, water, adding hops and yeast and voilà, you have your craft beer. As a consumer of craft beer, it might be fun to understand how we get to the place called “Voilà”. In the end, craft beer is about interesting flavors and aromas, and we know that barley is the ‘soul’ of craft beer.

Barley is the premier cereal grain for making malts for beer because of its attributes in the brewing process, although wheat and corn are sometimes used. For example

  • The character of barley husk adds to the filtering process in making wort.
  • Barley malt enzymes do a great job converting starches in the grain into sugars.
  • It is easier for barley to germinate, which is required to turn barley grain into malts; far more manageable than other grains such as wheat, rye, or oats.
  • Barley malts add flavor, color, and mouthfeel to the beer.
  • Malted barley can be grown with lower protein content, which makes for clear beer.

Without malting there are no sugars to be derived from the barley. It is easy to get confused about barley and malts and other grains that might be malted. Suffice to say, most any germinated grain can make beer. Even a gluten-free beer using sunflower seeds.

Of the four ingredients in beer that is some form contributor to flavor, water should not be overlooked. Water plays a crucial role in some styles, specific to regions such as Dublin, Ireland. Also, many English beer attribute their flavors to their own well water. Beers using water higher in pH (alkalinity) would typically be darker as the darker grain’s lower pH of the water. Yeast does not function well in a high alkaline solution, so historically brewers compensated by devising ways to manipulate the water that was really a local supply issue.

Barley – Beyond the Basics

Consistency is critical to all things craft beer. Consistency is of paramount importance in establishing brand, it is all about maintaining quality throughout the process – from research, to seed production, harvest, storage, and finally to malting practices. Brew masters want vendor partners helping them meet product quality.

As an aside, beer is produced throughout the year and barley is harvested once a year. If barley is generally a crop that is planted in spring and harvested in late summer, how do craft brewers ensure they have malts throughout the year? Short answer: Grain is stored in elevators for as long as 12-14 months, then malted as demand dictates. That warehousing process is a highly sophisticated and an expensive operation that most consumers never think about.

Obviously, the primary ingredient to start making beer is barley malt. (Not to slight the importance of hops or yeast for now.) Over the past few years hops has held a prominent position when discussing flavors and aromas in U.S. craft beer. That may be partially attributed to successful marketing campaigns that brand patented hop varietals. Barley is understood by brewers for inherent compounds levels such as enzymes, sugars and malting profiles and proteins. Most barley for brewers is based upon specs dictated by brewers and contracts with farmers that conform to those specs; a barley specified by varietal name is just not recognized as important. Nonetheless, there are 37 patented varietals of barley certified today.

“Brewers purchase malts based on specifications of the varietal barley used and on quality standards in malting process. The maltster understands the array of varieties and what malt process they must employ to achieve the dictated specifications from the brewer,” says Dr. Jamie Sherman, Director-Barley Breeding Program, Montana State University.

“Currently, they (farmers and brewers) don’t see a value in promoting the fact they use branded specific barley varietals. A few craft brewers are now sourcing malts based upon region of origin but don’t see a value in a specific variety. That means some maltsters are using only regionally sourced barley. That is dictated by a brewers marketing decision. One of the things several seed breeders are working on is to provide some value-add with a variety e.g. a specific flavor profile as hops does. So far, this goal is still in the research stage. We are malting varieties with different inherent chemical profiles to see if we can give a variety specific flavor,” said Dr. Sherman.

Flavors-Malting is About Sugars, Flavors, Color and Character!

It is not unusual for a brew-master to contact a malting company with an idea for a new recipe. After much consulting, a selection of base malts and specialty malts are recommended and then tested. The refinements to the recipe will be made. The brewer may have specified color, mouthfeel, aroma, abv, sensory profile, etc. The final decision might be made that a new variety of barley is required.

Flavors introduced into beer via malts are extremely complicated. There are more than 600 different compounds in malts. “The chemical structure of barley malts has a lot to do with types of barley, region where barley is grown and brewing process. For sure yeast, malts and hops all interact together throughout the brewing process to produce flavors,” said Dr. Sherman.

Malting is a process converting starches into sugars. No sugars, no beer.

Malts are a process of getting the barley to start germinating. The process starts by soaking the barley seed in water, and when seeds start to sprout the maltster initiates a process of heating and drying the grain to stop the sprouting process. That is what creates the release of enzymes in the grain to breakdown the starches into sugars and for the yeast to turn into alcohol. This is the major purpose in mashing the grain malt — getting sugars out of the grain.

Any malt used, base or specialty, the process is a blend to get flavors, color, and character.

Stick with me, we are still on flavor.

Here is another perspective on what barley brings to the flavor table. Dr. Patrick Hayes, Crop & Soil Science Dept., Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR is a leading researcher on attributes of barley relative to flavors. Hayes says, “If the question is: Does barley add to the flavor of beer? The answer must be yes and that alone validates all the research being done on new breeding programs for barley malts.” Here are some of the findings from the 2017 study on barley and beer flavors reported on by Dr. Hayes.

  • It is not surprising that barley variety contributions to beer flavor has not been a high research priority. However, certain varieties are acknowledged by some brewers to have notable flavor attributes.
  • Terroir impact remains elusive in the beer industry; only recently has the term appeared with reference to cereal grains. Barley has two markets-Cereal (human consumption) and Feed (animal related).
  • Data confirms genotypes (genetic make-up) of barely has a significant effect on beer flavor and sensory descriptors (how flavors are described).
  • Barley variety contributes to beer flavor.
  • Climate, soil types, irrigation, nutrients, pest control and farming management practices contribute to barley flavors.
  • Genetic markers do prove barley contributions to beer flavor.
  • Variety contributions to beer flavor develop during malting.

Here is the most profound quote from Dr. Hayes study on beer flavors: “In certain beer styles and for some maltsters, brewers, and consumers, the barley contribution to beer flavor will be worth pursuing.”

What Price-Flavor?

Hand-selected malts and hops in the hands of good brewers can make a unique and memorable quality beer. And therefore, crafted beers’ distinctiveness should not be expected to compete on price either. Quality does come with a price, as Gucci said, “quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten”.

Ron Silberstein of Admiral Maltings in Alameda, California comments about the cost of flavor quality in craft beer, “From the outset, Admiral understood that we couldn’t compete with ‘commodity’ barley malt on price. A batch of 7 percent abv beer from a 15-barrel system with 1,000 pounds of malt will cost about 13 to 15 cents more per pint,” Silberstein says.

“Hops are the spice of beer and it does wonderful things, but it’s not the heart and soul of beer. No malt, no beer,” says Silberstein. “But the barley grower is now starting to understand that through special breeding programs. Barley is starting to lose its ‘commodity grain’ heritage. New varieties of barley designed for each growing region bring forward special flavors and some are produced with an ‘organically grown’ moniker. They bring forth uniquely defined chemical compounds and are being recognized as hybrid’s not commodities. These come with significant higher flavors than a commodity grains,” according to Limagrain Cereal Seed company, a worldwide producer of various cereal seeds.

Maybe in the future, consumers will be more aware of barley malt varietals that are used to make their beer and definable flavors from varietal barley grains.

How Big Is the Footprint of Barley/Malts?

Note: The U.S. is the world’s 10th largest producer of barley; Russia and Germany are the two largest.

The largest brewers such as In-Bev and Molson/Coors have their own patented varietals and their own malting facilities. By definition, a craft brewery produces less than 6 million barrels per year and is not controlled by a major brewer. Crafters are the people that contract barley production and set the specifications for the malts they buy.

In July 2020 AMBA (American Malting Barley Association) reported 2019 barley production (feed and cereal types) to total 169,806,000 bushels. The largest producers were Idaho- 54 million bushels; Montana-43 million bushels; and N. Dakota-32 million bushels. Interestingly, malts and malt houses for crafters tend to be regional. In essence, close to where the barley grain is produced and malted. This gives a lot of beer regional styles, flavors, and aromas because each growing region uses barley bred for a regional growing terroir/agronomics. Of all barley harvested in 2020 approximately 50% is for malting.

Barley Malts Breeding Research-It Is All About Chemistry

As has been repeated several times, malts are the soul of a beer and are finally getting their due. I recently heard one brewer state that “malt is the new hops,” says Chris Swersey, Brewers Assoc. “Craft brewers as a group cherish the flavors that arise from diverse malts.” What helped bring hops to the forefront are distinct flavors and aromas and some mouthfeel issues.”

Like hops, there are trade groups, universities and private entities that are focused on quality and breeding new barley malt seed. The certifying organization for quality is the American Malting Barley Association. They ensure that their certification of barley used for malting is of a guaranteed quality. Currently the AMBA (American Malting Barley Association) has researched and establishes quality standards on approximately varietals of barley used for malted beverages. There are probably 100 barley varietals produced in the U.S., according to Scott Heisel-VP at the AMBA.

In recent research to identify beer flavors –“The Flavor Project” — Effects of Barley Variety and Growing Environment on Beer Flavor— they used selected varieties of barley malts in a highly controlled study. Here are some descriptors participants identified in flavor tests: cereal, floral, fruity, grassy, honey, bready, malty, toast, toffee, chocolate, sweet, etc… Of the three varietals used in the test, defined flavors varied by variety and location. The study noted, “… flavor is usually ascribed to the malt rather than to the variety.” However, without the compounds in barley, malting is unable to deliver flavors.

See a Beer Flavor Wheel at:

What are some of the issue’s barley research is focused upon?

  • Impact of higher yield varietals on flavor
  • Structure of the plant itself — for example taller stalks of grain
  • Agronomic characteristics – climate adaptability
  • Protein content – levels of proteins breed into the plant
  • Color
  • Disease resistance by growing region
  • Drought tolerant
  • Two Row versus Six Row –Two Row varieties are most common barley varietal and offer plumper kernels, lower protein malts and lower husk content. But there is still a place for Six Row barley malts.
  • Spike structure – Where the grain sits
  • Regulating maturity of the crop – winter/spring barley
  • Moisture content – Lower is better
  • Types of sugars released in the wort
  • Higher malt extract
  • Lower wort viscosity

The Case for Flavor in Beer

Research is increasing our understanding of flavor attributes in malt which are opening up new horizons for new varietals. Research trends are showing the impact ‘base malts’ and specialty malts have on flavor and in turn flavors have on brand identification.

After talking with many maltsters of various sizes and regions it does seem there is a trend toward explaining and describing flavor profiles of their malts.

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