Real Beer Discussion

Does Beer Need Barley?

Written by Mark on 12/13/16

This may have gone under the radar in American craft beer news, but Ghana’s first microbrewery has opened for business. The man behind the beer is Clement Djameh, a Ghanaian native who studied brewing in Germany. Instead of emulating the German style, Djameh is making a truly Ghanaian beer brewed from sorghum, a staple grain from the region.

Sorghum intended for brewing

Sorghum intended for brewing. Photo by Jjumba Martin.

Even if you’ve never heard Djameh’s name, you might recognize sorghum as a barley substitute for gluten-free brews in the United States. Until recently, it had been nearly impossible to source GF malt for these beers, but a new wave of small-scale craft malthouses have been pushing this initiative. In particular, Grouse Malting and Roasting Co. in Colorado has been malting long-neglected grains like millet and buckwheat to supply breweries looking to differentiate and tap into the gluten-free market.

Despite this hint of a renaissance in fermentable biodiversity, barley is still the undisputed king in the brewing world.

As maltsters ourselves, we’re excited by the prospect of experimenting in malting and brewing with other grains besides barley. We think there’s great potential for wildly new flavors and beer styles to emerge.

As all brewers should, we remain reverent to the barley grain for what it has made possible in beer. But we want to know how it became so dominant and inseparable from the concept of beer. Seriously, what makes barley so darn special?

“Barley is the Perfect Brewing Grain”

It’s been said by many brewing experts. The quote above is from Randy Mosher’s influential book Tasting Beer. He points to its high level of starch, which becomes fermentable sugar in the malting process, and to its husk’s ability to act as a filter bed during the mashing step of brewing. And its impressive enzyme portfolio can make brewing as simple as the instructions on a packet of Quaker instant oats: Just Add Hot Water! (modern brewers tend to make it a little more complicated than that). It is truly a remarkable grain, made more and more suited to brewing since the acceleration of malting barley breeding programs in the 20th century.

On the other hand, the prevalence of barley has also impacted how we brew – our brewing techniques and tools have been engineered to work specifically with barley. The modern brewing process has evolved around barley as its base grain, but it wasn’t always that way.

The First Brewers

We know that barley wasn’t the only grain that led to the birth of beer. Ancient cultures that didn’t have access to barley made beer out of all sorts of different grains – they independently figured out how to make alcohol out of whatever they had lying around. Again and again, civilizations developed with their own place-based takes on beer.

Beer has had a central place in most societies, featuring prominently in religious rituals and communal activities (read: parties). In fact, it’s been so important to our cultural development that there has been a debate raging in the anthropological community for over 60 years with this central question: did humans first go through the trouble of domesticating grains to make beer or bread? The “beer before bread” proponents argue that calories were easily accessible in foraged foods, but only beer was worth the domestication effort due to its special nutritive properties and enhanced storability from the fermentation process. And of course, its alcohol content.

In indigenous cultures today, the labor-intensive task of brewing falls to the women, who may actually be spending more time brewing than you and your brother-in-law. But they aren’t limited to brewing with malted barley like you are. In Ethiopia alone, anthropologist John Arthur has witnessed women also brewing with wheat, maize, sorghum, and finger millet.

Clearly, other grains are suitable for brewing, so when in our culture’s history did we get so hung up on barley?

1516 AD – Enter, The Reinheitsgebot

Wilhelm IV

Wilhelm IV, duke of Bavaria, ponders the future of beer.

The Reinheitsgebot, the infamous German Beer Purity Law, is celebrating its 500th anniversary this year, so there’s no better time to rip into it! A half millennium ago, the duke of Bavaria proclaimed that if you didn’t want him to confiscate your beer, it was to be made only with “barley, hops, and water.” Besides the addition of yeast to the list (yeast wasn’t discovered until the 19th century), this law has remained pretty much intact in Germany to this day.

Despite its longevity, historians suspect that the Beer Purity Law was very much in response to a 16th century issue: food scarcity in Bavaria. Beer historian Maureen Ogle explains how a shortage of wheat or rye, two grains valued for their ability to make good bread, could be crippling to the Bavarian food supply. The 1516 law aimed to reserve wheat and rye for bakers, who had little use for barley, and thus secure a cheap bread supply for the region. And thus barley was left to the brewers.

So how did the Reinheitsgebot and barley become synonymous with purity and good beer? Ogle thinks that Germany used the law as a marketing ploy to export their beer and bolster their economy after World War II. Many bottles of German beer still bear the mark of the Reinheitsgebot as a symbol of quality.

But the Purity Law has faced several attacks in recent decades. In 1987, the EU ruled that Germany could not use the law to keep imported beers out of their country, as they did not pose risks to the public health as Germany claimed. Last year in Bavaria (which I will remind you is where the law began and where it has been most strictly enforced), the Bavarian Brewers’ Association voted to “restructure the beer law” to allow other natural ingredients on the list.

The Reinheitsgebot and the Craft Beer Movement

The Purity Law may have lasted 500 years, but its future looks short-lived. While German brewing still holds closely to their traditional understanding of beer, there is a growing craft brewing scene that feels stifled by the law, complaining that it has prevented them from moving into the dynamic beer scene of the 21st century.

The American craft beer movement has obviously had no qualms with change, but it too is rooted in that idea of traditional brewing. Both innovation and traditional ingredients are in fact hallmarks of craft brewing, as defined by the Brewers Association. In the early days of the movement, traditional beer made from 100% malt was a radical way to differentiate craft brewers from the big adjunct brewers of that time. Barley + hops + water + yeast = purity. Purity from big beer and corporate ownership. This idea struck a chord with the first craft beer drinkers.

Since then, American craft brewing has exploded with the drive to find the next big wacky thing to add to the brewing process. Adjuncts such as coffee and chocolate have made frequent appearances in our brews, but our definition of beer has yet to truly break away from the idea that a beer needs barley.

Is that even bier?

In the 1990s, Germany saw the beginning of a protracted legal battle over a black ale made with sugar in a monastery brewery. As it violated the still-kicking Reinheitsgebot, the German government decided that they could not use the word bier on the label. After ten years in court, the highest administrative court in Germany repealed this decision, and the black ale was at last called bier.

This goes to show, what you call a beer truly matters.

In the U.S., we have our own challenges with legally defining “beer”. First off, confusion stems from the somewhat synonymous use of the terms beer, malt liquor, and malt beverage. To make matters more unclear, each state determines its own way of taxing alcohol, and thus beer is labeled differently on a state by state basis. For example, at 5.9% ABV, a Natural Ice is labeled as an “ale” in Texas, though it is in fact a lager, and in Colorado as a “malt liquor,” though most people would just call it a shitty beer.

There is even confusion in the federal law between tax codes and labeling mandates. Under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, “beer” is defined as “beer, ale, porter, stout, and other similar fermented beverages.” To be taxed, it must be above 0.5% ABV (which excludes non-alcoholic beers) and contain malted barley or a substitute, such as “rice, grain of any kind, bran, glucose, sugar, and molasses.” In this definition, barley is optional.

The Federal Alcohol Administration Act (FAA Act) pertains to labeling, and it defines a “malt beverage” as “a beverage made by the alcoholic fermentation…of malted barley with hops.” Unlike the Reinheitsgebot, it goes on to list all sorts of allowed adjuncts, but as with the German Purity Law, it specifies the use of barley. From there, the label further breaks down “malt beverage” into class designations like beer, ale, and lager.

This is not to point out loopholes for avoiding taxes and labeling requirements, but to say that our definition of a beer is a rather complex thing.

And to think that the most beer-y of beers, the proclaimed “King of Beers,” is not brewed with much barley at all! Makes you lose faith that a beer is just a beer.

Drawing a Line

Legally, a line has to be drawn somewhere to set beer apart for taxing and labeling purposes. Is it appropriate to draw this line around barley?

As gluten-free beers became available, the FDA had to figure out a way to label these beers brewed without barley. In 2008, they ruled that these beers don’t fit under the FAA Act and thus need to be labeled differently. Well, they decided that sorghum beers should be labeled “sorghum beer,” not forcing us to stretch our imaginations too far.

The important distinction here is that the sorghum beer that may look and taste a lot like the barley beer, actually falls into a completely separate designation outside of “malt beverage.” Is that to say that a malt beverage like Budweiser is more akin to another malt beverage like Smirnoff Ice than it is to a sorghum beer, which has no malted barley?

The Rise of the Malternatives

Zima, the malternative pioneer

Zima, the malternative pioneer

Since the launch of the now-extinct Zima in 1992, there has been an ever growing market for malt beverages engineered to taste nothing like beer. These “malternatives,” like Smirnoff Ice, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and more recently, hard root beers, have entered liquor stores to satisfy taste buds that don’t like the bitterness of beer.

In some countries, this type of drink is simply made by mixing liquor into a beverage – it’s a pre-packaged mixed drink. The U.S. places strict restrictions on where and how you can sell liquor, making malt beverages much easier to come by. The creators of malternatives saw this loophole and exploited it. They aim for the same sugary flavor as a mixed drink, while utilizing a similar process to beer making. They use malted barley as the base fermentable, only to filter out that signature beer taste, to be replaced by a food chemist’s wildest imagination.

In this way, malternatives can be distributed and advertised like beer, exposing them to the eyeballs of many a young (or underage) drinker that has grown up on soda. The malternative industry has been under fire for years by state and federal regulators, who claim they intentionally market themselves to minors, citing the garishly colored packaging, high alcohol content, and sweet flavoring as evidence. You will find them stocked right below a Corona six-pack at a gas station, but they look and taste much more like the Red Bull one cooler over.

The malternatives’ obvious departure from beer has been lauded by some as the future of the alcohol industry. Jamey Grosser of W.G. Brewing Co. calls it Beer 3.0: “If Beer 1.0 is mainstream breweries and Beer 2.0 is craft, then 3.0 is making beer taste like whatever you want.” Despite initially being written off as a fad, malternatives have proven themselves over the last 25 years by gaining and maintaining a share of the market. They have brought something new to the table, and the novelty has clearly not worn off.

Real Beer

Craft beer enthusiasts will balk at Grosser’s assertion that we’ve moved past craft beer and into a new realm of Beer 3.0. Malternatives have long been ridiculed as an artificial sugar drink lacking masculinity or maturity, emphasized by the nickname “alcopop.” It’s inconceivable to many beer lovers to think of these drinks as real beer. And the Brewers Association backs this up by clearly stating, “Flavored malt beverages are not considered beers.”

But before we write them off and forget about them, we should ask ourselves: what is the purpose of a malternative? For Grosser, they’re meant to capitalize on a “whitespace” in the beer market. To provide an alternative to traditional beer. To take what we know about brewing and make something new.

Should that be considered the cutting edge of the beer world? I’m not saying that it is, but perhaps people would think so if malternatives were marketed as the beer frontier. As it stands, malternatives try extremely hard to identify themselves as not beer. While they share the same foundation as a “malt beverage,” malternatives and beer will never be too hard to differentiate, as they intentionally set themselves apart.

So even though a beer brewed from sorghum has a different legal status, a different history, and a different base grain, it is still identified as a real beer by the people who brew it and drink it. It introduces new flavors and new markets from farmer to maltster to brewer. For that reason, non-barley beers could truly be the next Beer 3.0.