Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Barley bad too, in Europe

The Brewers Association Forum Vol. 13-0918 (Tuesday's on-line edition) references a report from Gate2Biotech (as does Mr. Hieronymous again).

Growing quality malting barley is becoming increasingly difficult due to the current sudden weather changes, maltsters are on the lookout for new crop-plants

In the European brewing superpowers that produce the best beers in the world, barley malt is used exclusively and practically nothing else. Though the situation wasn’t always like this. Until the 18th century, in Bohemia beer was brewed mainly from wheat, a little from barley and in the bad years even from oats.

Then however a period of reform came, especially thanks to the legendary maltster František Ondřej Poupě (1753 - 1805). It was he who pronounced the legendary sentence „barley for beer, wheat for cakes and oats for horses“, thus giving European brewing and malting a new direction. This may however be changed as a result of the climatic changes at the beginning of the 21st century.

Starting with the year 2000, barley producers are encountering problems with an increasing frequency. Already the first season’s harvest was characterized as the worst one in the past thirty years. The major problems were moulds and high protein content. Huge problems with both the quality and quantity of barley continued in the following years, weather in 2006 was then the "crown" of all this mishap.

A long and frosty winter with a continuous snow cover held off sowing, the spring was very wet, cold and short, followed by an extremely hot and dry July. Barley fields went dry, thus lowering the quality and yields of the first harvests. The long-term downpours in August led to the germination of the grain, new green leaf growth and such grown barley is difficult to process in the malt house.

"Barley is not built to withstand such changes. It requires early spring, lots of rain during its growth period and in July stable warm weather, enabling it to become ripe, " claims Josef Prokeš, the head of the experimental analytical laboratory of the Brewing and Malting Research Institute - The Malting Institute Brno. He adds that a bad harvest does not mean just low yields. In the case of excessive wettening of barley, higher risks of moulds exist and beer made from such biologically invaded barley has a tendency to over-foam. Upon opening it behaves like champagne, which is an absolutely unacceptable trait in beer.

New breeds and imports

Czech breeds of malting barley were always well known for their quality. With no exaggeration they may be considered the co-creators of the known quality of Czech beer, because the spirit of every beer lies in its malt. Barley is grown especially in the areas Polabí, Haná, Vyškov, Litovel, the majority of the 38 regional malt houses operate in these regions. If the local farmers are unable to fulfill the capacity of the national malt houses, part of the barley must be imported.

Last year bad weather affected the entire continent of Europe, so barley cannot be imported from Germany or other neighboring countries. Farmers in England and France had better luck, but importing products from greater distances of course increases the costs. Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe on the other hand do not dispose of quality malting breeds and there are problems with the quality of their processing.

This situation does not only have an economic impact on the malt houses. „They process what is at hand and lower quality barley forces them to improvise in the technology. Since processing malts from last season’s harvest in the fall of 2006, breweries have been having problems with the depth of fermentation and the sensoric stability of the beer fluctuates. The common consumer may not tell the difference, but sensoric tests confirm problems here, but also for example in Germany, “ Prokeš stated.

One of the possible solutions at hand is the orientation toward breeds of perennial barley that are widespread for example in France. Due to this their farmers were able to harvest the majority of last year’s crop before the intense August rain. The Czech Republic lacks quality frost-resistant perennial breeds of barley. Winter crops are risky for the producers, because after a harsh winter with a long-term snow cover, there will not be much left on their fields. Though here there always exists a second chance and the farmers may sow their fields with spring barley.

The second option lies in crossing breeds in order to increase the resistance of the barley to the anomalies of the current weather, specifically providing increased resistance to dryness and overgrowths. This path is however always accompanied by a more or less severe degradation of quality.

The report then moves onto a more fanciful exposition: malted chickpeas as a starch source for beer. Beer is brewed from barley for a reason: barley's flavor (and its strong enzymatic content, and its husk). Witness sorgum (non-gluten) beer, or lite(sic) beer (corn, rice).

Gate2Biotech states that its article was written based upon information from the Maltster Institution in Brno in the Czech Republic. I don't know anything about that organization.

See previous post on poor hop crop.

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