Barley Varietals Are Becoming More Definable in Flavor and Chemistry!

The flavor of beer has many elements – barley, hops, and yeast. Some in the malting industry lament that barley has not received its due when it comes to imparting beer flavors. Hops has been the center of conversation over the past few years.

Whatever your perspective, beer is about agronomics – same with wine. More than terroir, agronomics is inclusive of farming practices — fertilizing, grain density, irrigation, climate, and fungicides. Same can be said about wine grapes. Nonetheless, growing cereal barley for malting is more than simply putting seed in the ground, watering, and hoping mother nature cooperates.

Like most historical aspects of the U.S. beer industry, it was the European immigrants who made it happen, primarily those who came from Germany. Brewers like Anheuser-Busch, Ruhstaller, and Coors have European roots. Hop farmers were also immigrants who settled in New York, California, and the Northwest. Barley in the U.S. has a long immigrant involved history. In the late 1800’s Sacramento, with a large German immigrant population, was a major barley and hops growing region and, at the time, was home to the largest brewer West of the Mississippi River.

Because mass production brewers own their barley production and malting operations, many local private maltsters cater to Craft Brewers, who are true “crafters” of quality beers – Samuel Adams, Alaska Brewing, Firestone Walker, Stone Brewing, Sierra Nevada, Maine Brewing Co., etc.

Some private maltsters are large operations such as Rahr Malting, which is privately owned and have been malting since 1847. Like many old timers’ William Rahr was a German immigrant. Over the last decade many producers have been acquired by other international entities. About a year ago Cargill agreed to sell their malting operation to Axéréal of France.

In conversations with malting companies it is apparent the business requires a lot of capital. It is a fact that malting companies must cater to the small brew pubs and even the homebrewers as that is where larger micro brewers get started making their own flavors of beer.

It’s All About Innovation Through Chemistry

Innovative craft beer flavors are not simply the act of mixing: malts, water, adding hops and yeast and voilà, you have your craft beer. As a consumer of craft beer, it might be fun to understand how we get to the place called “Voilà”. In the end, craft beer is about interesting flavors and aromas, and we know that barley is the ‘soul’ of craft beer.

Barley is the premier cereal grain for making malts for beer because of its attributes in the brewing process, although wheat and corn are sometimes used. For example

The character of barley husk adds to the filtering process in making wort.
Barley malt enzymes do a great job converting starches in the grain into sugars.
It is easier for barley to germinate, which is required to turn barley grain into malts; far more manageable than other grains such as wheat, rye, or oats.
Barley malts add flavor, color, and mouthfeel to the beer.
Malted barley can be grown with lower protein content, which makes for clear beer.
Without malting there are no sugars to be derived from the barley. It is easy to get confused about barley and malts and other grains that might be malted. Suffice to say, most any germinated grain can make beer. Even a gluten-free beer using sunflower seeds.
Of the four ingredients in beer that is some form contributor to flavor, water should not be overlooked. Water plays a crucial role in some styles, specific to regions such as Dublin, Ireland. Also, many English beer attribute their flavors to their own well water. Beers using water higher in pH (alkalinity) would typically be darker as the darker grain’s lower pH of the water. Yeast does not function well in a high alkaline solution, so historically brewers compensated by devising ways to manipulate the water that was really a local supply issue.

Barley – Beyond the Basics

Consistency is critical to all things craft beer. Consistency is of paramount importance in establishing brand, it is all about maintaining quality throughout the process – from research, to seed production, harvest, storage, and finally to malting practices. Brew masters want vendor partners helping them meet product quality.

As an aside, beer is produced throughout the year and barley is harvested once a year. If barley is generally a crop that is planted in spring and harvested in late summer, how do craft brewers ensure they have malts throughout the year? Short answer: Grain is stored in elevators for as long as 12-14 months, then malted as demand dictates. That warehousing process is a highly sophisticated and an expensive operation that most consumers never think about.

Obviously, the primary ingredient to start making beer is barley malt. (Not to slight the importance of hops or yeast for now.) Over the past few years hops has held a prominent position when discussing flavors and aromas in U.S. craft beer. That may be partially attributed to successful marketing campaigns that brand patented hop varietals. Barley is understood by brewers for inherent compounds levels such as enzymes, sugars and malting profiles and proteins. Most barley for brewers is based upon specs dictated by brewers and contracts with farmers that conform to those specs; a barley specified by varietal name is just not recognized as important. Nonetheless, there are 37 patented varietals of barley certified today.

“Brewers purchase malts based on specifications of the varietal barley used and on quality standards in malting process. The maltster understands the array of varieties and what malt process they must employ to achieve the dictated specifications from the brewer,” says Dr. Jamie Sherman, Director-Barley Breeding Program, Montana State University.

“Currently, they (farmers and brewers) don’t see a value in promoting the fact they use branded specific barley varietals. A few craft brewers are now sourcing malts based upon region of origin but don’t see a value in a specific variety. That means some maltsters are using only regionally sourced barley. That is dictated by a brewers marketing decision. One of the things several seed breeders are working on is to provide some value-add with a variety e.g. a specific flavor profile as hops does. So far, this goal is still in the research stage. We are malting varieties with different inherent chemical profiles to see if we can give a variety specific flavor,” said Dr. Sherman.

Flavors-Malting is About Sugars, Flavors, Color and Character!

It is not unusual for a brew-master to contact a malting company with an idea for a new recipe. After much consulting, a selection of base malts and specialty malts are recommended and then tested. The refinements to the recipe will be made. The brewer may have specified color, mouthfeel, aroma, abv, sensory profile, etc. The final decision might be made that a new variety of barley is required.

Flavors introduced into beer via malts are extremely complicated. There are more than 600 different compounds in malts. “The chemical structure of barley malts has a lot to do with types of barley, region where barley is grown and brewing process. For sure yeast, malts and hops all interact together throughout the brewing process to produce flavors,” said Dr. Sherman.

Malting is a process converting starches into sugars. No sugars, no beer.

Malts are a process of getting the barley to start germinating. The process starts by soaking the barley seed in water, and when seeds start to sprout the maltster initiates a process of heating and drying the grain to stop the sprouting process. That is what creates the release of enzymes in the grain to breakdown the starches into sugars and for the yeast to turn into alcohol. This is the major purpose in mashing the grain malt — getting sugars out of the grain.

Any malt used, base or specialty, the process is a blend to get flavors, color, and character.

Stick with me, we are still on flavor.

Here is another perspective on what barley brings to the flavor table. Dr. Patrick Hayes, Crop & Soil Science Dept., Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR is a leading researcher on attributes of barley relative to flavors. Hayes says, “If the question is: Does barley add to the flavor of beer? The answer must be yes and that alone validates all the research being done on new breeding programs for barley malts.” Here are some of the findings from the 2017 study on barley and beer flavors reported on by Dr. Hayes.

It is not surprising that barley variety contributions to beer flavor has not been a high research priority. However, certain varieties are acknowledged by some brewers to have notable flavor attributes.
Terroir impact remains elusive in the beer industry; only recently has the term appeared with reference to cereal grains. Barley has two markets-Cereal (human consumption) and Feed (animal related).
Data confirms genotypes (genetic make-up) of barely has a significant effect on beer flavor and sensory descriptors (how flavors are described).
Barley variety contributes to beer flavor.
Climate, soil types, irrigation, nutrients, pest control and farming management practices contribute to barley flavors.
Genetic markers do prove barley contributions to beer flavor.
Variety contributions to beer flavor develop during malting.
Here is the most profound quote from Dr. Hayes study on beer flavors: “In certain beer styles and for some maltsters, brewers, and consumers, the barley contribution to beer flavor will be worth pursuing.”
What Price-Flavor?

Hand-selected malts and hops in the hands of good brewers can make a unique and memorable quality beer. And therefore, crafted beers’ distinctiveness should not be expected to compete on price either. Quality does come with a price, as Gucci said, “quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten”.

Ron Silberstein of Admiral Maltings in Alameda, California comments about the cost of flavor quality in craft beer, “From the outset, Admiral understood that we couldn’t compete with ‘commodity’ barley malt on price. A batch of 7 percent abv beer from a 15-barrel system with 1,000 pounds of malt will cost about 13 to 15 cents more per pint,” Silberstein says.

“Hops are the spice of beer and it does wonderful things, but it’s not the heart and soul of beer. No malt, no beer,” says Silberstein. “But the barley grower is now starting to understand that through special breeding programs. Barley is starting to lose its ‘commodity grain’ heritage. New varieties of barley designed for each growing region bring forward special flavors and some are produced with an ‘organically grown’ moniker. They bring forth uniquely defined chemical compounds and are being recognized as hybrid’s not commodities. These come with significant higher flavors than a commodity grains,” according to Limagrain Cereal Seed company, a worldwide producer of various cereal seeds.

Maybe in the future, consumers will be more aware of barley malt varietals that are used to make their beer and definable flavors from varietal barley grains.

How Big Is the Footprint of Barley/Malts?

Note: The U.S. is the world’s 10th largest producer of barley; Russia and Germany are the two largest.

The largest brewers such as In-Bev and Molson/Coors have their own patented varietals and their own malting facilities. By definition, a craft brewery produces less than 6 million barrels per year and is not controlled by a major brewer. Crafters are the people that contract barley production and set the specifications for the malts they buy.

In July 2020 AMBA (American Malting Barley Association) reported 2019 barley production (feed and cereal types) to total 169,806,000 bushels. The largest producers were Idaho- 54 million bushels; Montana-43 million bushels; and N. Dakota-32 million bushels. Interestingly, malts and malt houses for crafters tend to be regional. In essence, close to where the barley grain is produced and malted. This gives a lot of beer regional styles, flavors, and aromas because each growing region uses barley bred for a regional growing terroir/agronomics. Of all barley harvested in 2020 approximately 50% is for malting.

Barley Malts Breeding Research-It Is All About Chemistry

As has been repeated several times, malts are the soul of a beer and are finally getting their due. I recently heard one brewer state that “malt is the new hops,” says Chris Swersey, Brewers Assoc. “Craft brewers as a group cherish the flavors that arise from diverse malts.” What helped bring hops to the forefront are distinct flavors and aromas and some mouthfeel issues.”

Like hops, there are trade groups, universities and private entities that are focused on quality and breeding new barley malt seed. The certifying organization for quality is the American Malting Barley Association. They ensure that their certification of barley used for malting is of a guaranteed quality. Currently the AMBA (American Malting Barley Association) has researched and establishes quality standards on approximately varietals of barley used for malted beverages. There are probably 100 barley varietals produced in the U.S., according to Scott Heisel-VP at the AMBA.

In recent research to identify beer flavors –“The Flavor Project” — Effects of Barley Variety and Growing Environment on Beer Flavor– they used selected varieties of barley malts in a highly controlled study. Here are some descriptors participants identified in flavor tests: cereal, floral, fruity, grassy, honey, bready, malty, toast, toffee, chocolate, sweet, etc… Of the three varietals used in the test, defined flavors varied by variety and location. The study noted, “… flavor is usually ascribed to the malt rather than to the variety.” However, without the compounds in barley, malting is unable to deliver flavors.

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Out of Thin Air Came A Key Ingredient That Made Beer

To varying degrees, craft beer drinkers are by nature ‘yeast prospectors”; always searching for that new or unique flavor in a beer that unbeknown to them comes from yeast. Many do not know the role of yeast in producing flavors, look and aromas. Those unique tastes and aromas that gives each craft beer a distinct style signature is from, to a great extent, the contribution of yeast. The adage is: no yeast, no beer. Interestingly, yeast has always been ubiquitous in nature-Wild Yeast. This does not diminish the fact that barley and hops are important too.

One word describes what makes the craft beer industry unique–innovation. Craft brewers are willing to think outside the box. Some brewers have carved out a niche by experimenting with ‘prospected’ wild/natural yeast. These are strains of yeast ‘prospected’ directly from nature. And are strains of yeast literally collected/harvested from trees, plants, fruits, etc.

Obviously, there are risks in using wild yeast because a brewer never is sure how beer will turn out once fermentation is complete. But this is the risk in yeast prospecting and innovating. However, this does not stop researchers from looking to wild yeast for some new commercially viable yeast. It all about flavors and understanding the performance of various yeast.

I am mentioning wild yeast upfront because that is how beer came about 10,000 years ago-naturally. Today there are brewers that have resurrected this art form and specialize in only wild strain yeast beer. Wild Mind Ales in Minnesota started their brewery by going around the state prospecting/collecting yeast strains from various wild fruit bushes, trees, and wildflowers. They wanted the unique and wild flavors from natural yeast used in their saison, farmhouse and sour beers.

“The cool thing about wild, isolated strains is that you can have something that is both truly local and also proprietary to you,” says James Howat, co-founder-Black Project Spontaneous & Wild Ales in Denver. Further, “Yeast is really a way for a brewery to distinguish themselves,” says Eric Lumen, co-founder-Green Room Brewing. “All breweries have access to pretty much the same raw ingredients, yet wild yeast can set a unique and interesting flavor to a product.”

Yes, there are innovations involving wild yeast. The latest new yeast development was announced in June 2020 by Lallemand, an innovative yeast manufacturer. This new patented yeast is named Wildbrew Philly Sour with a technical designation-GY7b. The strain originated from a Dog Wood tree in a cemetery near the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia by a student of Dr. Matthew Farber-Director of Brewing Sciences. This yeast strain was found as part of a project. This new yeast is one of more than 500 yeast species for beer. According to Soft School there are thousands of varieties in total.

There are a lot of benefits of this new yeast in producing beer with unique flavors and aromas in the sour beer category. This is a huge commercially viable discovery involving an organism that cannot even be seen with the naked eye.

Philly Sour is now being marketed to homebrewers and brewers worldwide. “Philly Sour allows for faster brewing time for making sour beer, because the yeast itself makes lactic acid, for the first time there is no need for brewers to introduce bacteria in their sour beer production line thus avoiding contamination concerns. Plus, it’s delicious,” says Dr. Farber.

As an aside, sour beer has been around for a thousand years, but it became more popular in the last couple of decades. In fact, there are a few brewers who produce only sour beers.

This discovery illustrates how a simple living cell, as old as time itself, produces beer. “Beer has been produced for more than 5,000 plus years as a fermented beverage. It wasn’t until the late 1860’s, when Louis Pasteur isolated the yeast cell, that the ancient mystery of fermentation was defined,” said Eric Abbott, Global Technical Advisor for Lallemand yeast manufacturing. “Before Pasteur’s discovery, brewers accepted that somehow wort simply started growing a foamy substance that made a delicious beverage. Now we sell yeast to brewers that are specific to their specifications for flavors and compatibility with their grains and hop requirements.”

So, what is yeast and why should craft beer consumers be interested in knowing a little more about it? First, beer without the yeast is nothing but sugar water. In simple terms, yeast is a single cell, living organism, small but nonetheless a living thing. It loves warm temperatures, moisture, and a needs oxygen and a plentiful food supply. The food supply for yeast comes from the starches in malted grains that are heated in water to release the sugars. Various yeast strains react to the myriad sugars in wort (the result of boiling the malt mixture) to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. In the end, selected yeast strains eat the sugars and gives off alcohol and CO2. and brings out the best of hops and malts.

But just how small is a yeast cell? If a homebrewer were doing a batch or a larger brewer was testing a recipe, they may need 5 to 10-grams of yeast. One pouch of dry yeast for the 5-gallon fermentation would contain approximately 150 billion cells for an ale and 300 billion for a lager. A 5-gram pouch of dry yeast contains approximately 150 billion cells.

The consumer appreciates the final craft beer product because of the alcohol content, visual appeal, flavors, aromas, and mouthfeel. All of this is facilitated by yeast. Each type of yeast used is responsible for the character of a specific beer style to be brewed. Even yeast will contribute to the ‘head’ on a beer.

Here are some of the by-products of yeast that impact the consumer. Yeast creates esters, ketones and phenolics in the process of consuming sugars. To get a signature craft beer a brewer must pamper the yeast. Pampering involves creating the right fermentation temperature, introducing the right yeast at the right volume, creating the right water chemistry, and having the proper sugars in the wort for a specific yeast to render the desired style of beer.

Esters – These create fruity flavors. Interestingly, if you want more esters ferment at higher temperatures.
Ketones – These compounds add to beers buttery or caramel taste.
Phenolics – A compound producing spicy notes, a common attribute of wine.
Alcohols-Some alcohols can add stress to yeast performance during fermentation, but alcohol does contribute to aromas and mouthfeel.
Foam/foam retention (called head)-The selection of yeast that will help produce a head on beer is important.
“To get ever more unique flavors and aromas, use more than one yeast strain in a given beer and add the yeasts at different stages of fermentation,” says Charlie Gottenkieny of Bruz Beer. So, it is obvious the process of turning sugar water into a beer must be constantly controlled. Making a craft beer is very much a cerebral exercise, it is anything but being a “no brainer”.
American Homebrewers Association points out: “Yeast contribute more than 600 flavor and aroma compounds which add complexity and nuance to beer. Beer can build upon, showcase, or even diminish malt and hop flavors. One yeast strain might leave a residual malty sweetness while another might dry the beer out leaving a punching perceivable bitterness.”

Yeast manufacturers also publish detailed data sheets on each yeast variety. These specifications give brewers pitching rates, fermentation time, temperatures, attenuation rate, flocculation data and of course aroma data. A flavor and aroma wheel, shown below, are offered by manufacturers so brewers can visualize a specific yeasts’ suitability for a beer style.

Each of the yeast houses provides a wide assortment of strains. There is some overlap of cultures, but some are unique strains cultured by each company exclusively. So, it is hard to say who provides the largest assortment. But Lallemand does seem to focus on innovations in yeast and flavors.

In doing research for this article I saw a webinar on November 12, 2020 sponsored by Lallemand Brewing about “Biotransformation”. In addition to scientists from Lallemand Brewing, Dr. Thomas Shellhammer made a presentation explaining new discoveries and analysis on Lallemand yeast products that are designed to enhance flavors and aromas in hops the brewing processes. (Note: Dr. Shellhammer is the Nor’Wester Professor of Fermentation Science at Oregon State University and is an internationally recognized expert in hops chemistry. His lab studies the contribution of hops to beer flavor, foam, and physical & flavor stability.)

The webinar presented new yeast research specific to a new approach to craft brewing called Biotransformation–defined as the chemical modification made by an organism (yeast) on a compound (derived from oils in hops). These findings impact even the casual lover of craft beer, as they recognize new interaction of a hop compound and a yeast strain that create ‘new’ aromatic compounds. This process is initiated by enzymes in yeast working with certain hop compounds in fermentation. Craft beer consumers should be prepared for some new aromas and flavors coming from hoppy IPA’s.

Yeast influences the hop character of the beer which is the point all beer consumers know and appreciate. This new study is starting to revolutionize the way some craft brewers think about how yeast react with hop compounds and vice versa they select for their beers. There are compounds in hops that are non-aromatic but with specific yeast strains, inherent yeast enzymes can release new aromatic/ flavor from hop compounds in beer.

For craft beer ‘hop heads’ this means, “Different yeast strains can influence flavor and aroma by interfacing with specific hop-derived flavor compounds, a process called biotransformation,” notes Lallemand Brewing research.

The benefits derived from this new yeast enzyme research include:

Increases the diversity of hop flavors and aroma,
Enhances the beer mouthfeel and drinkability by reducing unpleasant bitterness, and
Expresses more character in the beer for consumers while using less sophisticated hop varieties.
Interestingly, some brewers in the EU are starting to note on their labels specific yeast strains and hop varietals used in their beers as part of a new approach to beer branding.
There is some crossover in yeast research between wine and beer. Dr. Shellhammer got his PhD from UC Davis and did some research there. With more transparency in labeling craft beer consumers will become for informed and educated about the beer brands and styles. When it comes to exploring new yeast from the wild/open environment or new ways of introducing yeast’s to hops used in fermentation, consumers will benefit with new flavors and aromas. There is a lot of on-line information available to consumers who want to understand specifics about yeast a brewer has used in making a beer. The “flavor wheel” above is one example of information being available.

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