Most avid beer drinkers know the hop flavors they prefer: piney and resinous, light and floral, citrusy and bright, earthy and herbal. Some can even rattle off their favorite hop varieties. But could you name your favorite variety of barley?
Barley has been used to brew beer for 10,000 years, yet many American drinkers tend to gloss over this crucial ingredient in favor of hops’ and yeasts’ flavor and aromatic contributions to beer. Our proximity to the hop farms of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Michigan and other states combines with American brewers’ fondness for hop-forward beers to create a special level of affection for these green cones.
Think of the last time you were at a beer festival: How many hop-related hats, logos, shirts and tattoos did you see? Now, how many two-row barley logos? It can feel like American drinkers give barley short shrift.
Not so in the Canadian province of Alberta. I recently visited our northern neighbors and found a beer-drinking and -brewing community proud of its locally grown barley and eager to talk about its maltsters. Alberta produces about 4 million metric tons of barley annually, exporting about 1.5 metric tons to the U.S., Japan and China. In short, barley is a big deal there.
But what does that abundance of locally grown and malted barley mean for the beer it eventually becomes? Are variations in barley types detectable in a final beer?
A useful experiment came in the form of a beer from Red Deer’s Troubled Monk Brewery called Golden Gaetz, a 5% ABV blonde ale that’s part of the brewery’s flagship lineup. It’s normally brewed with a combination of Copeland and Synergy varieties of barley from Rahr Malting Canada‘s facility in nearby Alix. But recently, Troubled Monk head brewer Garret Haynes brewed two variations on Golden Gaetz using malted barley from Red Shed Malting, also located not terribly far away (by giant-Canadian-landmass standards) in Red Deer County.
The two operations could not appear more different in terms of scale. Red Shed will, at full capacity, be able to produce about 200 metric tons of finished malt a year; Rahr produces roughly 140,000 metric tons per year. Red Shed is housed in a moderately sized red barn on a family farm, accessible off a dirt road that also passes a ranch-style house. Rahr’s multistory germinating/kilning tower and gleaming storage bins rise over the surrounding farms, visible from miles away.
There are a few other differences: Rahr produces exclusively barley base malts, which make up the majority of beer recipes (base malts include pale malt, Pilsner malt, Vienna malt, Munich malt, etc.). Red Shed makes some base malts, but focuses primarily on darker specialty malts like biscuit, amber, light chocolate and roasted barley, prepared in a machine that looks like an oversized coffee roaster. Comparing the machinery at Rahr and Red Shed is like comparing the 5-barrel brewhouse at your local brewpub to the operations of Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada or New Belgium.
So, why release versions of the same beer using different varieties of barley from two different malting companies?
“The idea immediately clicked with us because we [Albertans] grow a lot of barley and from what I’ve experienced, some of the best barley in the world,” says Troubled Monk co-founder Graeme Bredo. “I’ve given the beer to a lot of people who I wouldn’t consider beer geeks and they can still pick up the differences. It’s surprising how well everyone can pick that out.”
The variations in flavor and aroma were certainly perceptible when I tasted the beers side by side, and they weren’t so subtle that the average drinker couldn’t find them. I tasted these beers alongside a friend who isn’t a certified beer judge or even especially geeky about beer, and he noticed the changes in flavor, too. Here’s how the variations broke down:
Golden Gaetz with 85 percent Rahr Copeland and 15 percent Rahr Synergy barley (standard recipe): The “control” version of the beer exhibits good clarity and a moderately fuzzy, soapy head of decent retention. Light corn and a hint of sweet lemon characterize the subtle aroma, while the sip layers sweet corn, vanilla, a touch of floral hops and honeysuckle across the tongue before a clean, malt-balanced finish.
Golden Gaetz with all Red Shed Bentley barley: This first variation was a degree lighter in color than the control, with the same clarity and a tighter but less persistent white head. The aroma was less cornike than the standard recipe, with a more neutral malt impression that was so light as to be almost a struggle to detect. The most noticeable flavor variation was a tilt toward more hop bitterness at the middle to close of the sip, enhanced by both the neutrality of the biscuitlike malt and what seemed to be a slightly higher carbonation level. The beer was still enjoyable, but with a tilt toward malt bitterness that might throw it out of style for a blonde ale.
Golden Gaetz with all Red Shed Synergy barley: The second variation exhibited a slightly more rosy/orange color than the first two, as well as a much moussier, tight head. But the first indication of how different this beer is comes with the first sniff: Big, earthy vanilla and light corn this time swirl amid faint orange and white bread crust. The sip introduces a pleasant, robust graininess not unlike chewing a raw barley kernel, with a depth of flavor that stops just shy of toast, akin to white bread crust. Faint unroasted peanut shell bubbles up before a dry swallow. “This tastes like a darker beer,” my friend says. It’s not dark like a porter, but reminds me of a pale ale’s malt bill if you cleared the hops away. This is probably my personal favorite of the trio, and a testament to the impact barley can have on a finished beer.
As for lasting lessons, Bredo says these Golden Gaetz variations have inspired him to perhaps cater his base malts to specific Troubled Monk beers. Currently, the brewery purchases the base malt blend offered by Rahr, but Bredo says it was fascinating to see that specific barleys could amplify certain characteristics in a beer. He’s also pondering the idea of a specific “in-house malt flavor” that characterizes all of a brewery’s beers.
Put simply, he says, “One base malt is not equivalent to the next base malt.”