Barley. Without barley, beer does not exist. It is to beer what grapes are to wine. I hope to weave you a story about a humble seed, that after hot hot heat and drowning in murky depths, rose to the surface and changed into something amazing.
(celestial harp music)
…Once upon a time, in faraway and long ago Germany, there grew a humble crop of a grain called barley. It served very little purpose at all until, one day, those innovative, thirsty Germans devised a scheme to use the barley to make a drink. And they set about a process known as malting.
They allowed the barley to germinate, or sprout, and then they dried it. Oh, how they dried it. For lighter beers, a lower temperature was used to crack the barley and flay its very insides. For darker beers (oh, dark beer!), the temperature was higher to give color and flavor. Thirty hours the barley was set to dry in this way.
While the barley was drying, deep within its fibers and enzymes and cells, sugars were forming in response to the heat. This malted barley now was the source of the sugar that would later get consumed by yeast and ferment.
The humble barley, now parched and scourged from the fire, was drowned. I’m sure this experience is not lost on you in your human life. Sometimes you just can’t win, and there are days when you can almost hear Life laugh wickedly and guffaw at your misery.
But wait! The barley’s story is not over, and certainly, neither is yours. The best is always yet to come.
The barley drowned in water in a process called ‘mashing’. It was stirred and mashed with water to release the sugars and break apart the fibers that held the excellent, toasty taste that the fire created. As the barley struggled for air and endured the changing of its construction, it probably wondered if this was the end.
Little did the barely know that it was no longer barley. It was now malt extract. It had become something new. Something useful. A new life was fast approaching.
Spoiler alert: the story of the barley doesn’t end well. It got a few moments of sweet free fall when it tumbled from the tap to the cold glass beneath, but then it got swallowed and tumbled again into another scary dark hole. The dark hole is you.
Barley malt, which is the end result of barley’s transformation, is, like I’ve said, as important to beer as your skin is to your body.
This may come as no surprise, but there are many varieties of barley malt. You can identify barley malt for its toasty notes of caramel and toffee, but flavor changes with the variety of malt. Black malt, smoked malt, roasted barley, and chocolate malt all exist somewhere out there in our world. Oh baby. Suddenly my ‘beer bucket list’ got a lot longer.
If you’re still new to the taste of beer, or you’re interested in just an unbridled barley malt experience, here are some good hearty beers that may not take you on a wild ride around the world, but will give you a chance to get your sea legs.
Ales are where you will want to begin. Ale yes!
The American Style Brown Ales are part of the classic malt experience, with sweet flavors of caramel and chocolate creating a beer of medium intensity. These beers also have a medium to high degree of hop bitterness, which gives the beer a bit of sass. This is the bitterest of the brown ales. A pretty “big” craft brewer, Rogue Brewery, makes a delicious Hazelnut Brown Nectar. Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale from Smuttynose Brewing Company scored 97 out of 100 in reviews on beeradvocate.com.
English Style Brown Ale is very similar to the American style, but less bitter, making a lighter use of hops. This beer is nutty and sweet and has a rich malt aroma and taste. This is a friendly beer…it gets along well with many different kinds of foods and also you. Many craft breweries will feature this kind of beer because of its drinkability, but if you can get your hands on a Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale from Samuel Smith Old Brewery, you might never go back. It received 100/100 from 3,549 different people who rated it on beeradvocate.com. Can I get an ‘ale yes’ (again)?
So stop reading and go drink some beer! All this joy would never be possible without the humble barley plant, good for little else but to get you tipsy and joyful on good craft beer. (May you be tipsy and joyful through all of Life!)
From the flame, a phoenix. From humility, now heralded, the barley plant tells, in a small way, the story of you, and me, and us. Ale yes!