Barley's good for more than malt.
Barley’s good for more than malt. Johan Neven/(CC BY 2.0)

Beer can’t exist without barley, yet brewers have long overlooked the cereal grain as a potential flavor. While beer aficionados often name-check hops and yeast as flavor powerhouses, the ugly stepsister barley has been relegated just to providing the sugars necessary for fermentation.

Now, barley is having its Cinderella moment. A team of researchers from the U.S. and Britain, who made 150 beers over five years, discovered that distinct barley strains do indeed produce different-tasting brews.

More like "drink barley."
More like “drink barley.” Oregon State Barley Project

Barley World, a research group at Oregon State University, teamed up with colleagues at Britain’s Sainsbury Laboratory for the study. Researchers took two kinds of barley, the British Golden Promise and the OSU-bred Full Pint, and crossbred them. The experiment yielded hundreds of new barley strains, which researchers then planted and harvested near OSU. Local breweries used the new strains to whip up 150 “micro-batches” of beer. (Sadly, they only made one bottle of each.)

A panel of beer tasters then went to work. The judges rated each beer for its flavor properties, comparing them to “an industry standard control beer.” Beer made with Golden Promise, for instance, tasted floral. Meanwhile, Full Pint had a toastier taste. The new strains had a mix of those tastes, and by using genetic fingerprinting, the study’s authors could identify which parent the barley took after more.

The little barley that could.
The little barley that could. Oregon State Barley Project

In the two studies published this week, researchers say they finally debunked the “widely held brewing trade opinion that it was the malting process, not the barley, that [contributes] to the flavour and aroma of beer.” We’ll raise a glass to that.

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