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Hopefully by this point you know that grains are used to make beer. Generally malted barley is the host of this party, but what exactly is malted barley, and more specifically, what gets done to grain to get it from the field to helping make alcohol in your beer?
This post will answer those questions, and hopefully a few more as well.
There are more grains used in beer than just malted barley, but for the sake of this post, we will look specifically at barley and it’s prowess at beer making. Let’s take a look at barley.
There is an enormous amount of history about barley, but for the sake of this post, I’ll keep it short and to the point. Barley has been used for literally thousands of years in cultures ranging from the fi
rst people of the Fertile Crescent, to the Korean Peninsula, to most of Europe. Barley availability helped fledgling civilizations to grow. Beer made from barley was quite possibly the first developed beverage used by neolithic humans.
This is one of the reasons the Egyptians loved their beer so much. They are known for their love and use of barley in both bread and in beer. Barley even had it’s own specific hieroglyphs to describe and spell it out. They took this grain very seriously. Barley in Tibet has been popular since about the 5th century, and is still a staple food today.
Beer is a great example of yin and yang. Two opposing forces that create harmony. Those forces in beer are hops and barley. The barley used in beer is what gives it color and alcohol content, as well as the balance to the bitterness that hops provide. Ok, enough history, let’s see what malted barley is.
Obviously the first step here is growing the barley. In 2007, barley ranked 4th in both quantity produced as well as area of cultivation. Barley is a member of the grass family, and is referred to as a cereal grain. Barley grows in the summer in temperate areas of the world, and has been grown from the Fertile Crescent all the way to the United States.
There are a few different types of barley worth mentioning here, the main two being two-row and six-row barley. This refers to the number of rows of spikelets, or seed pods, on the head of each blade of this grass plant. Basically, two-row is used in ales and six-row is commonly used in lager style beers. Six row barley offers higher yields, so it is generally cheaper to use. The image to the right shows 2 row versus 6 row barley.
Germination of the seeds takes 1-2 days, and it takes about 40-55 days from planting to harvest. When planting, there is an average of 20-25 seeds per sq. ft. Barley is grown in much the same way as wheat is, which i why throughout history the two have been interchanged with one another. Barley is ready to be harvested when it’s golden in color.
Ok, once the barley is grown and harvested, it’s time to start the malting process. Malted barley is just barley grains that have started the germination process. Basically, they’ve started the process of each grain starting to sprout. The malting process is done so enzymes in the grain will form that are needed for converting the starches in it into sugars. This is what let’s us get sugar from the grain in the brewing process.
Malting is done by soaking grains in water, and then, when the grains have reached the proper level of germination, they are dried with hot air, stopping the malting process. This is usually done in Malting Houses which today are more similar to factories than the old barns of the past. The grains are turned over the course of a few days once they have been soaked in water, and when they reach the proper level of germination, it is kiln-dried to stop the process and get it into the desired color and specifications. This is how you get malts such as crystal, amber, and chocolate.
Once the grain is dried, it can be stored in a sealed container for at least one year in it’s un-milled form. Once milled, you have a short window to use it without getting any off tastes in your beer. Milling is a pretty straightforward process in which the outer layer (husk) of the grain is crushed, and the inner (endosperm) is broken up to allow the mashing liquor (water) to better access the the entirety of the grain. Basically you make it easier for the malted barley to give up all it’s starches and sugars to your beer.
Milling can be done with a variety of sizes of mills. There are smaller mills that hook to a power drill, these are commonly used by home brewers as well as brew shops. You can mill your own grain at home, or get the brew shop to mill it for you. Just remember that it needs used as quickly as possible after milling. Milling of malted barley needs to be done so that it isn’t turned into flower, but just enough that the grain is broken up.
We talked about mashing before, but this is important in the malted barley conversation because it is where that freshly milled barley goes. Basically, you heat water to mashing temperature (usually 150* F), mix in the freshly milled barley (gist), and hold it there for a specified period of time, depending on the gravity you’re looking for. This creates an oatmeal-like consistency while the grain gives up it’s starches and sugars.
Malting is one of the most difficult and important steps in brewing. This is why many new homebrewers start using Malt Extract to get the rest of the process down.
Once the mash is complete, and the grain has been Sparged, the grain is now called “spent grain” and can be disposed of. There are a lot of uses for spent grain other than the landfill, though. You can use it in recipes for cookies, breads, and even granola bars. It can be sold/given to farms for feeding livestock, and can even be used in compost for fertilizer.
That’s it! As you can see, malted barley is vital to the brewing process and hopefully you now have an understanding of what it is, and how it goes from a grass to alcohol in your beer. While other grains are used in beer, like wheat in a Hefeweizen, oats in an oatmeal stout, or rice and corn in an adjunct lager, barley is the real king of beers.
Until next time,