Suds with Sophie: Barley, The Perfect Brewing Grain

by Sophie Nelson, [email protected]

This is part two of a series on beer ingredients. Find part one here.

Beer has been an important part of cultures that has been brewed in a – sometimes speculated – culturally vital way for millennia. This is especially interesting considering the lack of scientific understanding of the brewing process until the last two hundred years or so. 

What I find amazing is the perfection that early brewers found in their brewing barley. Unlike water – which was, at the time, unchangeable and influenced styles based on its unique composition – barley was selectively bred, cultivated and grown specifically for its beer-making qualities. I can say beer-making specifically because brewing barley is not useful for baking. In fact, evidence points to baking grasses being grown alongside brewing grasses because both were needed to maintain societies. 

I’m making a lot of blanket statements about beer’s importance in societies – which I stand by – but I also acknowledge that many societies developed without beer, whether in the elite ruling class or almost entirely. In countries where beer and wine were both brewed, wine was reserved for royalty and the upper class, and everyone had access to beer. 

The Roman Empire perpetuated this idea. There’s a geographical line in Europe, south of which grapes grow well, and north of which barley grows well. This is why countries such as England and Germany had roaring beer cultures while countries such as France and Greece made wine. The Roman Empire existed below this line – in grape country – and therefore favored wine. 

As the empire spread and many in its fringe lands were found to drink beer, a stereotype arose that made wine drinkers seem more sophisticated, and the beer-drinking nations the empire conquered were seen as more barbaric. The border country of Belgium had influences from both wine country and beer land, which are reflected in its light and acidic lambic ales. 

Now back to brewing and the creation of the ideal brewing grain. Barley is the perfect grain for brewing because, first, it contains loads of starch, which is broken down into fermentable sugars. Also perfectly, barley contains the enzymes – and the right amount of enzymes – to break down these starches quickly and effectively with the simple addition of hot water.

This first stage of brewing, called mashing, begins with malted barley that has been milled to just the right coarseness to expose the starches to the enzymes but leave the husk relatively intact. This is important because once the hot water and milled malted barley are mixed, the husk acts as the perfect filter bed to separate the fermentable wort from the spent grain. (Wort is the fermentable liquid that will later be transformed into beer. The spent grain is the solid grain material that has been stripped of its starches and sugars.) 

The final perfection of barley is its protein content, which is a characteristic of beer that gives it a viscous body and a head that don’t exist in most other beverages. The protein also supplies fuel to yeast during fermentation. 

Before barley can be used in brewing, however, it must be malted. We’ll cover the malting process and which malts are specific to which countries and styles next time!