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Welcome to beer school: The critical role that barley plays in its production

The wheel, the knife, and the engine spring to mind but when it comes to the greatest invention of all time, it has to be beer.

by: Karl Tessendorf | 02 May 2018
friends with beer

(image: iStock)

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Why, you may ask? It’s simple really. It’s delicious, nutritious and it gives us something that we’ve have been chasing since the dawn of time - a buzz. There’s even debate amongst Anthropologists that beer and not bread is the real reason that hunter-gatherers settled down and began farming.

Whether it was beer or bread, the vital ingredient in both was barley. This humble grass was our first domesticated grain and people who are way smarter than me, say it happened about 10 000 years ago in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent. Barley was the grain of choice for thousands of years because of its hardy nature. It can grow just about anywhere and it was used to make porridge. When left out, wild yeast would infect the porridge causing it to ferment. Inevitably this led to beer and bread, or bread and beer depending on your Anthropological view. Wheat eventually replaced barley for bread-making because of its higher gluten content but when it comes to beer, barley is still king. 

bowl of Barley

Nowadays, barley for beer is grown all over the world but certain regions like England, Germany, Belgium and the USA are prized for their unique characteristics. Barley is the base of every beer but before it can be used in brewing, it has to be malted. After harvesting, the hard kernels are steeped in warm water to wake up the dormant seed. This process triggers germination and the kernels produce enzymes that break down its starches into sugars. After about three days, the kernels have sprouted and now the Maltster (a person who malts barley) dries the malted barley to stop the germination process. This locks in all the enzymes and magic that’s needed for brewing. 

Next, the malt is kilned or toasted and its shade will depend on what the malt is destined to brew. Pale malts produce pale beers, amber malts produce amber beers, dark malts produce dark beers - you get the idea. Some malts are even stewed further before they are toasted to convert all their starches to sugars, which then caramelise for maximum flavour during the toasting. With every shade comes a different set of aromas and flavours that range from bread, toast, biscuit, nuts, malt and honey to sweet and bittersweet caramel, toffee, plum, chocolate, coffee and smoke. 


Apart from colour and flavour, malted barley also gives beer body. It aids in a foamy head and most importantly, it provides fermentable sugars which yeast eat to create booze. Brewers will blend different malts depending on the style they are brewing, and certain styles like stouts and dunkels are all about the malt. It’s the base of every great beer and to the brave soul that decided to down a bowl of bubbling porridge all those thousands of years ago, I salute you. 

Tune in next week for my must-try list of six great malty beers. 

Karl Tessendorf is one part of the duo that hosts 'Beer Country', South Africa's first TV show dedicated to beer, braai and the open road.


Welcome to beer school: How hops are grown and harvested in South Africa

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