What is it? It makes up the biggest part of beer (except for water) but what is it and how is it used in your brew?
Let’s dive in:
Barley is a grass, but one that has been selectively bred to have huge tasty seeds. We’ve been cultivating it for about 10,000 years or so which means it’s pretty easy to grow. We could use any grain for brewing, but barley has some pretty special traits:
Yeast are the driving force of fermentation. They are splitting and budding and reproducing thousands of times in your beer. So they need a lot of nutrition to get the job done. Besides sugar, they need vitamins, minerals, plenty of protein and fat. Barley squares away everything a yeast colony needs to get busy. If yeast don’t get the nutrition they need, they’ll get stressed and slow down, as well as produce some funky metabolites. Think of exercising while you’re hungry – you’ll slow down, struggle and sweat a lot (and stink a bit too). Not good for your beer.
Whole Lotta Sugar
Speaking of fermentation, we need a whole lot of sugar to get this process done, so where does the sugar come from? It’s trapped in the barley grain. To release it, the grain needs to be ground and broken down into sugars. Barley has enzymes which do the tough work – similar to your saliva. If you put a cracker in your mouth and let it sit, it will start to taste sweet. These enzymes are chopping up the starch into easy to digest sugars ready to digest (or brew).
Easy To Grow
Since we’ve been cultivating it for about 10,000 years (thanks Sumerians!) it’s a pretty well sorted crop. Very productive and very consistent. Another fine trait for brewing beer.