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Let’s talk about… barley

Let’s talk about… barley

Barley is not just barley; barley is one of the three raw materials required in the production of single malt whisky and we do not just use any barley in the industry.

The barley varieties that we use have been bred specifically for the purpose of producing single malt whisky, and there is a very successful barley breeding program in operation in the UK.

When I started malting ‘as a boy’ many years ago we were processing Prisma, Puffin and Derkado, moving onto Chariot and Optic in the years that followed. We are now moving away from Concerto to Laureate and there have been many varieties that have come and gone in the meantime.

During my career with Diageo I was privileged to sit on the various industry committees that organised and ran the barley test programs, aimed at finding the next big Optic, Concerto or Laureate. The program is known as the ‘Stairway to Heaven’; heaven being the royalties that can be collected by the breeding companies from the sowing of a successful variety. Most people do not realise the time and expense that goes into the testing programs to find that next ‘super barley’

It starts with the breeders looking at the their thousands of new lines trying to pick the best. These are then micro-malted by the industry; malting in small 500-gram batches to see what gives the best analysis for whisky production. If a variety passes this stage it will go into macro trials, where batches of barley from 50te to 200te will be processed in a commercial maltings and distillery, to assess its suitability for the job. If successful the variety can gain Provisional and then Full Approval from the industry and then it is ‘happy days’ for the breeder, and hopefully for the farmer and the distiller.

In these trials, yield is king: yield for the farmer in terms of tonnage per acre and yield for the distillery in terms of litres per tonne of malt. Quality of the new make spirit is of course tested but, in terms of the testing program, not given the same importance as yield. And this is an issue for some distillers, who feel that flavour and quality may have given way to yield over the years. That, however, is another argument for another blog.

What is very interesting is the trend now for many producers to move back to heritage varieties and maybe putting more importance back on flavour instead of yield. I myself am involved in a project using bere barley from Orkney and the Western Isles and other varieties with fanciful names from the past. It remains to be seen though if these varieties can influence flavour as many people suggest.

The industry has been able to use the development of barley varieties to ask the breeders to alter the characteristics of the barley to suit distilling. Once such example of this was to identify the genetic marker of a gene that produced a compound called GN in the malting process. This went on to develop through another reaction in distilling to produce a potential carcinogen into the spirit. Through barley breeding, we have been able to eliminate this risk by producing what we call non-GN barley. The industry has also been able to reduce dormancy in barley through the breeding program.

We can, however, sometimes produce problems for ourselves. In my opinion, we may have gone too far with dormancy reduction and introduced another problem for the industry known as pre-germination. I also wonder if we have introduced more skinning problems in barley by pushing the grains to be bigger and bolder, thus increasing the tendency to shed its husk.

But the breeding and the evolution of barley variety will continue in the future. Can we find that next Golden Promise, the variety back in the 1960s (created by gamma rays by the way) that produced that first big step change in terms of spirit yield? Can we find the next Optic, the variety that stayed and stayed for years and years longer than any other variety? What will we find next? Who knows, but it will be interesting to see.

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