The Harlan Society

An Open Source Project Searching for New Malt Flavors

Written by Christopher on 03/07/17

Different varieties of barley in bags

The vast majority of beer relies on only 10 closely related varieties of barley, despite a genetic pool containing tens of thousands of varieties. Modern barley has been developed for big beer, a process we explored in this article, and has left us wanting more – bigger flavors, new creative tools for the brewhouse, and connections to place that cut across time and space.

These desires can be met through the hard work of barley breeders, but there’s also the possibility of finding them in existing varieties stored in the world’s seed banks. We’ve already started to explore these possibilities, and now we want to open the project up to our wider community.

Seed banks maintain small quantities of heritage grains, and are the only source for the seed. In order to discover the taste of Chevalier, the dominant barley of the Victorian era, the seed needs to be grown out from the original 5 gram sample. That tiny sample doesn’t take long to become tons and tons of grain, as one seed can produce over 30 of its own seeds. After only the second harvest, there is enough to malt and brew a 2 gallon batch, at which point the variety can be evaluated and approved or rejected.

Year Space for Planting Harvest Quantity
1 4 square feet 0.25 lbs
2 75 square feet 10 lbs
3 2700 square feet 300 lbs
4 2.3 acres 6 tons
5 95 acres 200 tons

This process takes time, work, organization, and money. In addition, some varieties could end up not being worth it. We’re dealing with a bit of a catch 22 – we won’t know which varieties offer interesting flavors and creative potential until we’ve grown them out, but we don’t want to grow out a lot of varieties that don’t offer what we want. The only way forward is to do our research ahead of time, make smart decisions, and start growing. At worst, we revive varieties with interesting stories and attain the ability to replicate historic styles. At best, we’ll find new flavors and fascinating brews.

Given the possibilities, we believe it’s well worth the effort. We think barley varieties have the potential to, at the very least, match the diversity of flavors and options offered by hops and yeast. It’s an unearthed door to the future of beer, and we need help getting it open. We’re committed to handling many of the logistics, but need brewers to join us in pulling it off.

What will this look like?

We’re looking for 5 – 15 brewers to join us in growing out seed, evaluating it through malt and beer tastings, and choosing which varieties to pursue into mechanized production.

Small plots of barley

Year 1

  1. We’ll send you 5 gram samples of 2-3 promising heritage grain varieties.
  2. Plant the seed this spring in a plot with full sun exposure. Each variety will need around 4 square feet.
  3. Take a few standard pictures and measurements throughout the growing season. These will be recorded in a public, online database.
  4. After harvest, either:
    1. Send the grain back to us, and we’ll thresh, clean, analyze, and store the grain.
    2. Thresh and clean the grain yourself, and send it back to us for analysis and storage.
  5. Join us in Minneapolis in late fall/early winter to taste and compare beers from varieties we started last year.

Leonessa barley

Year 2

  1. We’ll send the harvested seed out again, rotating varieties amongst the group to get a second data point on variety growth in a different location.
  2. Plant the seed – each variety will require ~75 square feet. If you don’t have enough space in your yard, there is likely a community garden plot with enough room near you. If this can’t be done, you’re still welcome to join us for growing during year 1, and we’ll find other ways to continue participating.
  3. Take and record the same pictures and measurements throughout the growing season.
  4. Send the grain back to us after harvest, and we’ll thresh, clean, and analyze it.
  5. We’ll malt all varieties in a standard way, and send you the malt from it to brew a standard SMaSH beer.
  6. In the late fall/early winter, we’ll host a weekend event to taste samples of the beers, compare, and vote on which varieties to keep growing.If you can’t make the trip, send bottled samples after tasting the results of your growing efforts.

Year 3

  1. We’ll work with small farmers to continue growing out the seed, and make a limited quantity available for malting.

Our end game isn’t to claim these heritage grains as our own, our business is our malting equipment. We want to involve the wider community in figuring out the future of malt! The seed will be available for anyone to grow and malt once we’ve built up the seed stock for these varieties.

Bere barley

Why The Harlan Society?

Harry Harlan was a pioneer in discovering barley varieties. He devoted himself to collecting and breeding barley varieties in the early 1900’s. Harlan traveled the world, bringing back the seed of over 5,000 varieties. We thought it appropriate to honor his work in the project’s name. You can read more about him in his book One Man’s Life With Barley.