Barley Varieties

How Big Beer Builds Your Seeds: A Look into the Development of Barley Varieties

Written by Christopher on 12/6/16

Barley variety

In brewing, hops have names: Galaxy, Cascade, Fuggle, Magnum, and Saaz. Malt, the veritable soul of beer, only has styles: 2-Row Base, Caramunich, Smoked, Bohemian Pilsner, Amber.

Unlike hops, malt isn’t a plant – it’s a processed seed. So what’s hiding beneath these styles? Where is the agricultural source, the history and varieties unbeknownst to us mashers and hopheads? We wanted to find out, so we dove into barley breeding and varieties to better understand the journey from soil to pint.

The USDA maintains 399 hop accessions (a collection of plant material from a particular geographical location) in the national seedbank system. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the backup seedbank for the world, maintains 18 accessions of hops (so few choices after the apocalypse? Someone send them some more please). While several hundred varieties is an impressive array of diversity, these numbers are smaller than for many other plants. Perhaps this is partly because the history of hops and humans is relatively short – only ranging back to Pliny the Elder’s mention of them in his Naturalis Historia 1,950 years ago. Hops and beer have an even shorter romance, starting around 1,200 years ago.

Grains? We’ve been domesticating, eating, sprouting, and brewing with them since before we had tools. Think 12,000 years spent together, with beer coming into the relationship at least 9,000 years ago. This mingling has led to a dramatically larger number of varieties of barley – 73,633 accessions are stored at Svalbard, and the USDA has more than 20,000 – developed over millennia all around the world.

Guiding Beer’s Future

From this treasure trove of diversity, brewers today rely on a select list of barley varieties deemed acceptable for beer. This list, Recommend Malting Barley Varieties, is published yearly and maintained by the American Malting Barley Association, Inc., or AMBA. AMBA exists “to help ensure an adequate supply of high quality malting barley for the malting, brewing, distilling, and food industries.” AMBA is the third such organization to exist since the 1930’s, and these trade groups have been key to keeping “malting barley competitive with other crops so that growers continue to plant it and produce an adequate supply of malting barley of consistent and suitable quality.”

How does one keep barley competitive? By breeding in agronomic improvements- increased yield, disease resistance, and lodging resistance – and malting and brewing improvements – plumper kernels, consistent protein levels, and lower beta glucan levels, among others.

AMBA is a membership based organization with regular and associate members. Regular members sit on the board, which decides which varieties make the Recommended Malting Barley Varieties list and which breeding research projects receive funding.

Up until 2010, AMBA’s board had only 10 members: Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Cargill, Rahr, Malteurop, Integrow Malt (an entity created in partnership between AB and Cargill), Briess, and 3 crafts: Sierra Nevada, Bells, and New Belgium. It’s unclear if each board seat has the same voting power, but they certainly pay different amounts to get to the table, as membership dues are based on barrels of beer produced or bushels of barley steeped. AB, Miller, Cargill, and Malteurop all would fall into the top member bracket of just shy of $300,000 a year. Sierra Nevada likely pays 2% of the big players’ fees, or around $7,000 a year to be a part of the conversation.

AMBA, and it’s board and preceding organizations, have likely made the greatest impact on barley in history. This means they’ve also made an enormous impact on many beers you brew and drink today.

What’s on the List?

In 2016, AMBA approved 20 2-row varieties and 8 6-row varieties for the Recommended Malting Barley Varieties list. Of these, 90.4% of the 2-row grown in the US was in 8 varieties, and 94.4% of the 6-row grown was in 2 varieties. So a large amount of beer tapped in the US comes from 10 varieties of barley.

Here’s a full list, with the most commonly grown in bold (* means a winter variety, which are planted in the fall, dormant all winter, and harvested mid summer. The rest are spring varieties, which are planted in the spring and harvested mid summer.)

Recommended Malting Barley Varieties

These elite varieties are just the most recent in a century of barley breeding. Yields continue to increase and disease resistance improves with each variety release. The average yield in 1866, when the USDA started tracking them, was 24 bushels per acre (a bushel of barley weighs 48 lbs). In 2010, the average yield hit 73.1 bushels per acre, over a 3x increase in production. These are nationwide averages, and in 2015, Colorado’s average bushels per acre yield was much higher at 130, almost 5.5x the 1866 US average yield. Seriously amazing!

Chart of barley production

Data from the USDA 2016 Report “Crop Production Historical Track Records”

This is AMBA at work. AMBA helps fund the work of 9 public university and 2 USDA breeding programs to develop new barley varieties in the US, and an increase in yield has been a major success of this work. Higher yields can make barley a more attractive crop for farmers to grow, which is important in maintaining a robust beer supply chain. Compared to other row crops like corn and soybeans, growing malting barley takes more skill and attentiveness, and it produces far fewer bushels per acre. The price per bushel can account for this, but barley needs all the help it can get to maintain a foothold in the modern crop marketplace.

As fledgling farmers ourselves who grew a few acres of amber waves of grain this summer, we gained a deeper understanding of all of the challenges and risks faced by farmers, and the appeal of higher yields and disease resistance. Rain, wind, and hail can destroy a crop in a matter of hours, so if you avoid disaster, you better get a big payout. Who needs casinos when you can gamble on barley plants!

The Breeder’s Gauntlet

Breeding new varieties with improved qualities takes an amazing amount of time. Breeders start by crossing different parental varieties together by hand (barley heads pollinate prior to emerging from the stalk, so they don’t rely on wind like rye or corn) and then growing out all of the different genetic crosses. Breeding programs will start with 400,000 different plants, and eventually whittle it down to one elite variety. Three growing cycles are achieved a year by some breeders:

  1. Outdoors during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer.
  2. Inside in greenhouses, under lights in the fall. 3. In New Zealand during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer (we’ve heard the unlucky breeders are forced to visit NZ to check on their crops…).

In rapidly growing out breeding lines, breeders are able to evaluate all of their crosses, and choose to continue growing out the most promising lines. However, it’s still a numbers game, or, as John Mallett of Bell’s Brewery says, “a game of genetic roulette in which the majority of the progeny have traits that are no better than those of the parents.”1

Promising lines aren’t tested for malting performance until the third year. The purpose of pilot malting tests is to examine “factors like even modification, good enzyme levels, and the ability to break dormancy quickly.”1 If the line passes malting evaluation, which is far from a guarantee, the line has a superior agronomic trait (making it good for farmers) and is acceptable or superior for malting (good for maltsters).

The varieties that have made it this far are then tested for brewing, meaning, as Mallett again puts it: “It is only after agronomic and malting performance criteria are met, that flavor and brewing performance are considered.”1 At this point, brewery scale tests of growing, malting, and brewing are run. As an industry veteran told us, the big breweries don’t want the new varieties to produce a beer that tastes better. If the barley results in a beer that is the same or not worse, the variety makes the list!

Timeline for the whole breeding process? 10 – 12 years. Ouch.

Barley as it is Currently

Breeders need funds for this research, and so their projects are tailored to what the end users and funders are looking for. Funds for research come primarily from the government and AMBA. AMBA’s board gets to choose what breeding projects to fund, which has historically resulted in barleys bred for large adjunct brewers. They need barleys with traits such as high diastatic power levels, capable of supercharged enzymatic work in converting adjunct sugars.

What AMBA has historically not supported is what European equivalents have: barleys bred for all-malt beers. As John Mallett writes: “European maltsters and brewers demand both lower protein levels and lower enzyme values than their North American counterparts, mainly because the beers brewed in Europe are predominantly all-malt…European brewers want lower FAN and high extract malt to brew their beer with, while the American malt economy is driven by efficiency.”1 Make no mistake, brewers want to squeeze as much extract out of their grain as they can, whether they’re European or American, big beer or craft. However, they’re using malt in different ways. Europeans for extract, Americans to convert cheaper sources of sugar into alcohol.

American barley has been bred for adjunct brewing, and the most cost effective way to produce Budweiser. We’re left with a system that caters to one type of brewing and fails to give all malt brewers what they need. This likely isn’t news, as it’s visible throughout the brewing world, particularly in beer distribution. However, it’s striking that the influence starts in the genetics of a seed.

Seeds for Scale

While Budweiser’s dominance starts with a tiny seed, the rest of its supply chain operates at an industrial scale almost too big to comprehend. Walking through Rahr’s malting plant in Shakopee, MN–the world’s largest malting facility–is amazing. It makes a human feel small in the face of billions of seeds, all quickly germinating in beds longer than a football field.

This scale adds requirements to the barley breeder’s list . Large maltsters need barley varieties that work with their machines and timelines. Diversity is a bad thing for them, because it means challenges for automation and throughput, like slower germination rates, differently sized kernels, and too many recipe changes when they start a batch with a different variety. They want seeds that consistently germinate in an amazingly rapid 3-4 days, because faster germination means more malt output.

The Rahr’s of the world operate at a scale that also leads to farmers who care most about yield and disease resistance. The way to make money growing small grains for commodity markets is to get big: It’s why farmers in North Dakota manage 10,000 acres. And who would grow 300 varieties of grains in that situation? It’s a system set up for thousands of acres of one variety to be loaded into train cars, malted in 250 ton batch sizes, loaded into more train cars, and delivered to a 10 million barrel adjunct brewery owned by AB-Inbev.

This is a system set up to make barley fit to industry’s needs. The logic of this makes sense when you’re inside the system, but does it when you take a step outside? At the very least, the current way doesn’t need to be the only way.

Europe Isn’t the Solution

Many American craft and home brewers have made do in the meantime by importing European malts made from European barley varieties, because they are bred for all-malt brewers. The most coveted European variety is probably Maris Otter (one of 2 well-known barley varieties, we would argue. The other being Golden Promise). Maris Otter used to be widely-grown, “but as newer barleys demonstrated superior agronomics (easier to grow, higher yield per acre), production sharply declined.”

Now it’s back, because brewers believe it has a superior flavor. Dan Carey, brewmaster at New Glarus brewing, doesn’t think this superior flavor comes from how the seed is processed: “I don’t think it’s due to kilning practices, I don’t think it’s due to malting practices, I think it’s due to varietal differences.”1

However, Maris Otter is still grown on a significantly smaller scale than more modern European varieties. Even though these modern varieties are bred for all-malt brewing, they’re not bred for flavor specifically. Instead of high enzyme levels for US adjunct brewers, they’re breeding for barleys with high extract that offer the most cost effective all malt beer.

The (kind of far off) future

The good news is things are changing. AMBA has seen an influx of new regular and associate members, growing the board from 10 to 27 members. Instead of 3 crafts, there are now 14, and Carey, who has a seat at the table, has called the organization “very democratic. You have syrup brewers, adjunct brewers, and all-malt brewers; you have three different groups all requiring different varieties and if anybody wants (a variety) then it is approved.”1

In addition to AMBA, the malt world is starting to change. Craft malthouses, small processors buying in locally grown seed, malting it, and selling it to local brewers, have been popping up all around the US. These pioneering maltsters are actively seeking varieties for flavor and craft brewing needs.

Chart of craft malthouse growth

Data from Dave Thomas

In addition to those in operation, there are another 60 in planning or construction stages. These producers are operating at very small scales, making an average of 2 tons per batch, and total malting capacity for all operating craft malthouses is just over 10,000 tons a year. To put this in perspective, Rahr has 6 malthouses at their plant in Minnesota (They also have a malting plant in Canada), and each malthouse produces around 250 tons per batch. Every few weeks they produce more than all craft malthouses do in a year together.

These folks are figuring malting out, and already starting to change a huge industry. They’ve helped organize variety trials led by accomplished breeders in non-traditional barley growing areas throughout the eastern seaboard, like New York and Maine. They’ve built up seedstock of promising heritage varieties able to grow in their areas. They’re malting buckwheat, millet, and sunflower seeds, and selling fresh, local, artisan malts.

The future looks promising for beer! Malt made from barley varieties bred for craft brewers is on it’s way, but it’s still 10 – 12 years away in many cases.

Searching for Flavor, on a Small-Scale

The shifting focus of the barley-malt-beer industry is exciting. There are now a lot of minds trying to reimagine the journey from breeder to bar, and change is in motion. We as home brewers felt left out though – the actors in this story are all professionals and academics, and we’re just hobbyists with a basement.

One way we’ve started participating is by growing out promising heritage and historic barley varieties currently unavailable commercially. We grew about 2 dozen this year of all shapes, colors, and sizes. They’re from the UK, Egypt, the Himalayas, Italy, and Minnesota, and boy are we excited to see what happens once we’ve malted them.

Home brewers have been central to changing beer in the last few decades, and we think hobbyists have something special to contribute to this impending shift in malting. Home brewers have a collective culture of creativity, persistence, and collaboration to leverage, and it can be powerful. Professional breeders, labs, malthouses, and breweries can accomplish amazing things, and a wide community of passionate home brewers can too!

So, what does beer taste like when the malty soul is chosen because of flavor, not industry? We’re joining the growing group trying to find out, but we certainly need many more home brewers to participate. It’s an exciting moment in this 12,000 year old relationship between barley and humans, and it’s high time for the home brewing voice to be heard. What do you think?

Multiple barley varieties


  1. Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse by John Mallett.