For most of the year it is easy to forget that beer is a seasonal product. Brewing relies on both the early-mid summer barley harvest and the late summer hop harvest for its raw brewing materials. The raw barley must then first be germinated and dried in a process called malting, and finally crushed, mashed and boiled in the brewing process. Without respect for the summer sun and the #Harvest no amount of malting and brewing will brew a great beer. Quality in, Quality out as they say. Farmers lay the initial groundwork in the brewing supply chain, sowing in the malting barley variety chosen by the maltster for that year’s crop.
Harvest time is critical for farmers; it is the sum of their entire years hard labour and can be both a time of great stress and great reward. Like most crops malting barley needs specific conditions to ripen and mature into a quality crop. The farmer is looking for long hot sunny days to allow the plant to mature. Any extra stress on the barley can impact the quality of the harvested grain. If there are abrupt weather changes, or competition from weeds or insects that is all it takes to stunt the growth. What could have been a plump, clean and vibrant hectare of barley will result in a plot of skinny grains, under-mature corns and not much reward for that years labour. No one watches the weather like an arable farmer during summer!
The maltster is looking for those plump grains and clean disease free barley. When the crop has been well ripened in the field the grain will all germinate evenly, growing at the same rate and the same time. However stressed barley will be all over the show, it can have different speeds of germination, or different levels of water uptake, requiring much more control and adjustment from the maltster to make the same quality of malt. In the malting process variety is also of great importance.
Malting barley has been cultivated over the years, selected for high enzyme production along with high extract and germination potential. To take a feed barley and put it through a malting plant will produce an inferior quality product and put additional strain on those brewing with it to make up for the lack of quality. Barley nitrogen content is also of great importance to the maltster; too low and the barley malt will suffer from low enzyme potential and poor fermentability. If the nitrogen content is too high there is risk of too many steely or glassy grains which mill poorly and reduce the brewer’s yield.
A good harvest to the brewer means consistent quality malt all year round. Plump grains will yield a high extract potential and better husk to grain ratio. Too much husk can negatively impact the flavour of the finished beer, over-extracting tannins and husk materials. Malt with low extract potential will reduce the amount of alcohol in the finished beer. Alcohol is a key driver of many flavour compounds that are insoluble in the water. So low extract malt, will produce a low alcohol beer with less flavour. Well developed grain in the field will have all the nutrients the brewer is looking for to both complete his mash and feed the yeast in the fermentation process.
When you crack open your next brew, drink to the sun, drink to the harvest and toast to the grain farmer and the maltster, the hop farmer, the yeast harvester and then and only then the brewer. Beer is a complex agricultural product that passes through more than a few steps to find its way into your glass. Look at the clarity and foam of the beer and ponder what steps the farmer took to control the protein content of his grain, and the maltster who treated the malt with care so as to not damage the grain. Enjoy all the wonderful flavours beer has to offer that could only come about because that barley, wheat, oats and grains saw its fair share of warm sunny days in the previous summer.
Thanks Ra! God of the Sun - Today's beer is for you :-) cheers!
First Published in Gladfield Malt news - March 2015