The Harlan Society: An Open Source Project Searching for New Malt Flavors

ChristopherFarming1 Comment

The Harlan Society:

An Open Source Project Searching for New Malt Flavors

Written by Christopher || 03/07/17

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sign Up!

If you want to join us and ol’ Harry in our search for flavor, please sign up here! If you have questions, leave them in the comments below, on reddit or home  brew talk, or email

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One Comment on “The Harlan Society: An Open Source Project Searching for New Malt Flavors”

  1. Hi Christopher,
    it sounds great what you are doing. I am currently doing some research to source something similar in the UK and thought that you may be able to point us in the right direction. Some details below!

    In short, we are trying to source some brewing barley for a heritage project in jersey (the island!) on a small amount of organically farmed land.

    The project:
    Info about the project that gave rise to the special edition brews:
    Info about the group that initiated the Seed Journey:
    A few details about the first draft ale that was made this year can be found here:


    The patch we can use is about 20m by 6m, situated at Hamptonne Country Museum. It is quite sunny and sheltered (more than elsewhere on the island). The soil in the area is good and not that heavy. A stream isn’t that far away, but the area drains well enough. Pigs and other livestock are very nearby, including some grazers. The patch has been fallow for quite a while. Ideally we would add some wildflowers between the grain for the bees, etc. A second possible patch is in a more exposed field that has been conventionally farmed in recent years (non organic). Obviously the climate in Jersey is quite mild and maritime, with few frosts and very rare snowfall.

    At the moment the site is head high in all sorts and will obviously need clearing first. Looking forward to those burdock roots! (

    We are open for advice on any varieties that would be suitable for organic farming practices on the site detailed above, while maintaining good brewing characteristics. A nice story is a bonus, but the story in Jersey is that this is happening at all. It will end up being used to create a brew using wild hops and rogue honey, premiered at an amateur brewing festival and series of events in 2018 (if all goes to plan).

    An open source barley that isn’t commercially trademarked would obviously be of interest, given the founding principles of the Futurefarmers Seed Journey. As we only need a small amount, maximum yield is not essential.

    The malting and brewing process would be done in collaboration with Liberation Brewery. We would probably try to send half of the crop to be malted elsewhere and malt half ourselves, but there is time to consider this and do tests on other grain over the next year and a half. Straw would inevitably be used for livestock and other items at the museum, so potentially a very exciting heritage project with lots of outcomes and community events.

    A bottle of beer for all those who can help us!

    Best wishes,


    2 La Hougue Mauger, St Mary, Jersey, JE3 3AF
    Tel (UK): 0044 1534 482898
    Mob (UK): 0044 7797865229
    Mob (DE): 0049 1751998917
    Skype: kaspar.wimberley

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