It is without doubt that intensive plant breeding and selection man has sped up the evolution of hop plants to produce some exciting new flavours and aromas. This has truly spurred the craft beer industry. So what happened to the evolution of barley varieties? Well to be honest there has been a far greater effort put into improving the humble barley grain for brewing than most of us could imagine.
If you were to use barley varieties of 100 years ago to make the beer of today you would require a lot more skill, a lot more time, a lot more money and you probably would not want to leave it in a bottle for too long. But what about the flavour? It would have to be said that beer flavour was not the top priority for barley breeders. Their customers were only interested in one thing, economics. They wanted barley that was favourable to grow for the farmer, easily malted by the maltster with minimal losses, produced high fermentabilty for adding adjuncts and was stable in the bottle when exported across the equator as beer.
The key thing is all these attributes are easily measured. Flavour? Well that’s pretty subjective isn’t it? New malting barley varieties haven’t been bred for their flavour contribution but then there is a lot that happens to barley before it ends up being consumed as beer that ultimately affects the flavour. For example, the way it’s grown, steeped, germinated and kilned. The extent of modification and level of soluble proteins versus fermentable and unfermentable sugars are just some of the things. It can also be argued that a lot of the improved brewing characteristics of new barley varieties have contributed to improved quality and there for improved flavour of the finished product for example improved enzymes for beer stability, lower levels of DMS precursors, reduced beta glucan levels, and the list goes on.
Craft beer should be seen as the hybrid of beers by combining both flavour and technical quality. The new modern day malts without doubt have contributed to technically high quality beers that can be reproduced consistently.
So why don’t we look at breeding barley varieties for beer quality and beer flavour. And we change the way we look at growing them and malting them and then ultimately how we brew with them. Surely the ultimate in craft beer is a combination of all of the above. If we want to go to the next level in brewing flavoursome beers we need to remember it’s not all about the hop aroma! Breeding new barley varieties for their effect on beer flavour and beer quality and thinking outside the square when we grow them, malt them and brew with them is where we need to raise the bar.
By Doug Michael, the founder/director of Gladfield Malt
Paddock to keg was first published in The Pursuit of Hoppiness // Autumn 2014 25