Brewing with the Grain
BY MARGARETT WATERBURY
PHOTOS BY SHAWN LINEHAN
Quick: When’s the last time you ate barley? If you’re an average Oregonian, it wasn’t that long ago. And you didn’t eat it; you drank it in a craft beer.
Dr. Pat Hayes, professor of barley breeding and products at Oregon State University, might be the man behind your last happy hour. Pat and his team at Barley World, the affectionate name for the barley-breeding program at OSU, are leading the beer industry into a new world of flavor-focused breeding, barley terroir, and craft malting that’s impacting brewers and farmers across the nation.
Barley World exists in a unique position at the conflux of industry and academia, working directly with businesses while also engaging in serious scientific research. When the phone rings, it’s as likely to be a major craft brewer or international trade group as it is a local organic farmer with concerns about protein levels. “We have the luxury of working with multinational entities and small organic farmers,” says Pat. “Our goal is total transparency. That’s part of the land grant mission, to contribute to the greater body of knowledge in the world. We’re like the NPR of barley.”
Right now, the focus is very much on malt, and that’s because craft beer is dominating tap lists across the nation. The primary ingredient in craft beer is malted barley. In simple terms, malt is made by soaking and sprouting whole barley grains under controlled conditions, and then drying and kilning those grains to stop germination and develop a range of flavors, from lightly toasty to deeply roasted. That sprouting process converts the starch in barley’s endosperm into sugars, the fuel that yeast later turns into alcohol. That’s why, if you crunch on a malted barley grain, it tastes sweet in a wholesome, grainy way, kind of like Grape-Nuts cereal.
A lot of research at Barley World is currently funded by the beer industry, from big players like the American Malting Barley Association to craft breweries like Deschutes and Firestone Walker. That means there’s been a sustained emphasis on varieties bred for malting, which need to have low beta-glucan content, low protein levels, and predictable, consistent performance inside the malting machinery.
For a long time, the malting industry relied on the same tried-and-true barley varieties. They were bulletproof in malting systems, but didn’t offer much of a range in terms of flavor. But as the craft beer industry has grown, demand for craft malts has grown alongside it, and renewed interest in barley’s ability to express unique flavors has spurred demand for barley varieties bred for flavor as well as malting characteristics.
OSU is rising to the challenge. The Barley World team was the first to begin breeding malting barley with an emphasis on great flavor in beer, not just predictable malting parameters. One result of that breeding, a variety called Full Pint, can be tasted in beers made up and down the West Coast, including brews from Deschutes, Crux, and Firestone Walker. Over the last several years, Barley World has been hard at work on a flavor-focused project evaluating dozens of breeding lines for their ability to produce flavorful beers that reflect regional terroir, just like wine.
But barley has more to offer than malt. In a time when “ancient grains” are the trend of the moment, not many grains can stack up to barley, which was one of the very first crops cultivated by humans. Astoundingly versatile, barley can be used for animal feed, cover crop, food, and malt. It’s easy to grow, inexpensive, and performs well in the field, vigorously outcompeting weeds and tolerating winter temperatures as cold as -13°C. Farmers plant it to improve soil structure, scavenge nitrogen, prevent erosion, and suppress weeds during the wet, cold, rainy months of the year. And its biodiversity is remarkable – there are hundreds of regularly cultivated varieties of barley, and its ability to readily cross with other strains means there are virtually limitless potential cultivars.
Yet these days, we don’t grow nearly as much of it as we once did. According to the USDA, Oregon farmers harvested a little over 1.9 million bushels of barley in 2015. Compare that to 50 years ago, in 1966, when the harvest was 16.8 million bushels. Why the drop? “The loss of local feed markets was a major driver in reducing barley acres,” says Pat. “Historically, 80 percent of U.S. barley was used for animal feed, and the animal feed industries have changed radically due to much larger confinement facilities and feedlots. Those very large facilities have turned to Midwestern corn as the feed of choice.” In other words, barley is yet another casualty of our infamous national orientation towards corn.
If you’re a barley farmer, malt contracts are where the money is. Prices are high, and buyers are eager. But not all barley can end up as malt, because the specification requirements are very precise. If you don’t hit exactly the right protein levels, experience just the right weather conditions, or achieve the de- sired grain size, your crop can’t be sold for malt, and that usually means the crop is a loss. “Feed barley continues to be a crop of low value,” says Pat. “But culinary barley is something that doesn’t really have a de ned market. If you go to the price sites for grain, there is no quote for food barley. Culinary barley is currently a specialty item, and prices are considerably higher than commodity wheat.”
These days, most barley consumed by humans is delivered in IPA format. Of the national barley crop, about 44 percent goes to malt. Another 51 percent is used as animal feed, and 3 percent is reserved as seed for the next year’s crop. That leaves a paltry 2 percent of the nation’s barley to be eaten as food — pearled and simmered with beef or mushrooms, flaked and sprinkled into healthy cereals, or milled into specialty ours for whole-grain breads and cookies. Compared to corn, wheat, or even rye, barley’s use as a food crop amounts to little more than a single speck in the proverbial silo.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Andrew Ross, OSU’s impish, Scottish-born food science professor, is on a mission to get us to eat more barley, and he’s hoping that barley’s new prominence as a beer ingredient can help propel it out of your pint glass and onto your plate. To get there, we need to start thinking of this resilient, adaptable, and fast-growing staple crop as a source of something nutritious, delicious, and even — banish the thought of soggy grain salads from your mind — pleasurable.
First, barley is a hugely healthful whole grain. It’s so high in soluble fibers like beta-glucan that the FDA OK’d health claims that it re- duces the risk of heart disease. And it might also reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. “But healthy isn’t enough,” says Andrew. “It has to be nice to eat.”
And fortunately, it is. Barley has a sweet, nutty flavor with a mouth-filling richness that’s immediately appealing, even to the pickiest eater. It’s low in gluten, which means it can be challenging to use as the main our for risen breads, but that quality is an asset in other applications. “You’ve got to live with the limitations of the crop and maximize its virtue,” says Andrew. “Barley has a sandy, nutty quality, like a nice sablee.”
“I’ve tried a 100-percent barley bread, but it’s always crumbly,” says Annie Moss, baker at Seastar Bakery in Northeast Portland. “It’s better to work with that texture than against it.” So Annie has been experimenting with a 100-percent barley graham cracker made with honey. It’s delicious — nutty, crumbly, with a strong honey flavor — and nothing like the tasteless, libido-dampening General Mills standby we’ve all smeared with charred marshmallow and a little brick of waxy Hershey’s chocolate. It’s enough to send you straight for the nearest bulk bin to start hunting for some barley our yourself.
Demand for food barley isn’t going to grow on its own, especially while corn and wheat continue to dominate our agricultural landscape. Right now, OSU isn’t making crosses for any new food-specific varieties, although there’s some focus in developing multi-use strains suited for malting as well as eating. Andrew says the interest is building, but without funding for food-focused breeding work to “break the dam open” and produce new varieties of eating barley with better nutrition, flavor, and texture, most of Barley World’s research will continue to go towards advancements in malting barley.
Several years ago, OSU began work on a big culinary barley project. They bred and planted 700 new varieties of culinary barley, from statuesque amber six-rows barley to dark, super-pigmented varieties with black and purple grains. But the grant funding they’d been banking on never came in, and they didn’t have the money to harvest seed individually from each test plot.
But it seemed a shame to lose all that work, so they red up the combine and drove the harvester perpendicularly across all 700 plots, mixing every variety into a single, riotous seed lot representing the tantalizing range of culinary barley possibilities. That population is still planted today, tucked into a corner next to the feed barleys, an incredible visual feast of shapes, colors, sizes, and flavors.
That seed mix is available, free of charge, to anybody — including home gardeners — interested in growing or breeding culinary barley. One visit to Barley World, and you, too, can join the barley revolution.
Margarett Waterbury is a food, drink, and travel writer who lives in Portland, Oregon.
WHOLE BARLEY SHORTBREAD
from Andrew Ross, adapted from food journalist Kathryn McGowan’s Scottish Shortbread recipe
Andrew recommends using weights rather than volumes for this recipe, as different flours have different densities.
12 ounces/340 grams barley flour* (about 3 1/2 cups)
9 ounces/260 grams unsalted butter, room temperature (2 1/4 sticks)
4 ounces/110 grams sugar (about 1/2 cup)
A pinch of salt
Pre-heat oven to 325°F. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy (a stand mixer with beater attachment works well). Mix the barley flour and salt together.
Stir or fold the barley flour and salt mixture into the creamed butter and sugar. You should form a stiff, somewhat lumpy dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and pin out into a flat disk. Optionally, cover the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Roll the dough out to between 1/4- and 1/2-inch thick, and cut into the desired shapes. Excess dough can be re-rolled and cut to shape. Optionally, sprinkle the cookies with sugar and prick with a fork.
Place dough pieces on parchment lined baking sheet and bake until the edges turn light brown. Depending on the thickness, this can take be- tween 15 and 25 minutes.
*You may replace up to 1 1/2 ounces (30 to 45 grams) of barley flour with non-diastatic malt flour/powder (King Arthur Flour is a source). The malt flour gives a malty caramel note to the shortbread. Be sure to use NON- diastatic because you don’t want the enzymes that come with diastatic malt. If adding the malt, be careful not to overbake.
from The New Bread Basket by Amy Halloran
1 cup whole-grain stone-ground barley flour, such as Camas Country Mill
1 teaspoon Rumford baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon barley malt, ground into a powder in a spice grinder
1 tablespoon yogurt
3/4 cup milk
Whisk together dry ingredients, add liquid ingredients. and blend well. Let rest for 10 minutes before cooking on a hot buttered griddle.
from JoMarie Pitino, Pasta Chef at Ava Gene’s
580 grams “00” flour (4 cups)
280 grams barley flour (2 cups)
3 whole eggs (160 grams)
415 grams egg yolks
20 grams olive oil (2 tablespoons)
In a stand mixer with paddle attachment, combine flours, olive oil, and whole eggs, and mix on low speed for about two minutes.
Slowly stream in egg yolks, pausing to let the yolks fully incorporate into the dough.
As the dough starts to come together into bigger pieces, switch to the dough hook attachment and knead 5–7 minutes, until the dough is springy to the touch.
Wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.
With a pasta sheeter, roll dough out until it is just thin enough to start to see through. Most small hand-cranked machines are numbered, and this corresponds with about number “4” in thickness.
Next, cut the sheeted dough into 12-inch-long rectangles and lay them out on the table to dry for a few minutes. You want the dough to be flexible still, but not tacky.
Dust the sheets with semolina and stack a few sheets on top of each other, then roll the sheets to form cylinders and cut the pasta lengthwise into strips about a centimeter wide.
Once the pasta is cut, it can be stored in the refrigerator for a couple of days or in an airtight container in the freezer for about 5 days.
To cook, boil in salted water for about 5 minutes.