What attracts crop researchers to naked barley? The name itself sounds indecent and risque, inviting a walk on the wild side.
It’s precisely the naked aspect, the fact that the barley does NOT have a hull that interests scientists. Patrick Hayes, Oregon State University crop scientist, said naked barley has economic promise because it has three potential uses: as an efficient malt for brewing; a healthy, whole-grain food; and animal feed.
Last fall, researchers received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study the concept of multi-use barley. OSU is the lead institution in collaboration with Washington State University, the Universities of Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as Cornell University. Hayes is the project director. “The naked trait is ancient,” he said, “but the barley variety we’re breeding is new. Buck was the one we had ready to go at the start of the project. We’ll look at 1,000 different naked barleys over the course of the study.”
Research includes participation from a broad group, including bakers, chefs, brewers, distributors, educators, maltsters, growers, food processors, seed producers and more. The goal is to “provide organic growers, processors and consumers with a new crop-food and raw material alternative that will be economically rewarding and sustainable,” according to the proposal.
The grain actually has a non-adhering hull that falls off during harvest. Once the Food and Drug Administration recognized barley as a source of soluble fiber that can reduce the risks of coronary heart disease, diabetes and cholesterol in 2010, the naked variety became even more viable as a natural whole grain.
Hayes invited Breakside Brewery to make one of the first pilot batches with Buck barley. Natalie Baldwin, Breakside’s research-and-development brewer at the Dekum facility, used 162 pounds of the grain in a 3-barrel batch of Buck Naked Golden Ale last November — a pilot brew that’s long gone.
The beer, with an ABV of 4.95 percent and 18 IBUs, was described as “crackery, sweet malt, lemongrass, hop spice.” I bought a growler of it months ago to sample while writing this story. I enjoyed the light taste, fuller bodied and more flavorful than a pilsner, with a deep honey color and yes, a “crackery” feel that got stronger with each sip.
Breakside’s brewmaster Ben Edmunds said, “We thought it was going to be a complete disaster when we were first approached about brewing with it.”
Hayes explained why Buck was selected for the trial brew. Barley, with and without the hull, has a form of soluble dietary fiber called beta glucan, which provides health benefits. However, many naked varieties have high beta glucan levels that cause brewers aggravation. The ideal level is 4 percent for brewing and for eating, and Buck has that ideal 4 percent.
The stumbling block with naked barley and brewing is lautering, the process of separating sweet wort from spent grain after the mash. Barley hulls play an important role in this filtration process. “They help catch everything that you don’t want. There’s lots of stuff in the boil, like proteins, that you don’t want,” said Hayes. The clearer liquid goes on
“The way for brewers to get around the lautering problem with naked barley is to add in rice hulls that are completely neutral in taste. The other option is a mash filtration system that filters the wort through membranes under pressure,” said Hayes. Crux Fermentation Project in Bend, Full Sail in Hood River and Alaskan Brewing in Juneau, Alaska are three breweries that have installed this system. Although it costs more up front, it’s more sustainable, efficient and uses less water.
“That was the first time we ever did a mash with 100-percent huskless grain. I’ll admit. I was very skeptical,” Edmunds said. “We often use rice hulls, but typically they make up only about 10 to 15 percent of the brew. This time was different,” said Edmunds.
He was pleasantly surprised. The beer was popular. People really enjoyed it. Of course, golden ales are enjoying a resurgence right now, so that helped. The barley was full of character. It was distinctive, flavorful and hull-less.
Even though the commercial viability of Buck has yet to be determined, Edmunds would encourage brewers to try it. “We would like to see what others can do different or better than what we did,” he said.
Hayes said naked barley makes economic sense for brewing. “The hull makes up 10 to 15 percent of the barley. When you’re buying barley, you’re paying for the hulls as well. It’s less expensive to buy naked barley and add back rice hulls. Also, malt extract is the key driver of how much beer you will get per pound of malt. Buck with Breakside was 87 to 89 percent. Barleys with hulls are around 83 percent. Potentially, you will get more gallons of beer per malt with naked barleys.”
Hayes predicted there would be commercial amounts of Buck available by next year. Great Western, on the project’s advisory committee, will likely distribute some. Growing trials of various naked barley varieties are ongoing in select regions across the country as well as in Canada. •
For more information about naked barley, email Patrick Hayes: firstname.lastname@example.org