A Taste of What’s to Come

Written by Christopher on 04/20/17

Chevallier Barley in a field

Several articles ago we dug into the story of Maris Otter, the present king of malt flavor. It was a fun story to research, so we decided to turn it into a semi-regular series on barley varieties.

This time, we look into the king of Victorian barleys, Chevallier, a variety loved throughout the UK and Europe for its quality and flavor. It dominated the landscape from 1820-1914, but fell from use after the introduction and success of the first hybrid barley varieties. Dormant for over a century, it has been recently revived from seed banks on both sides of the Atlantic, and looks poised to regain its position as the soul of award-winning beers.

Chevallier tells an important story of the value of landrace varieties, and the possibilities they offer today. Never bred for brewing or malting, it was merely selected from a barley variety developed over time on the coast of England. Its revival today has revealed deep flavor and promising disease resistance, exactly the traits we’re seeking in The Harlan Society. With its inspiring past and present, Chevallier is an example of what we’re working for, and we hope time will reveal hundreds of similar stories.

The Reverend Doctor

Reverend John Chevallier, M.D. was born in 1775, and lived to see his last name made famous by the barley seed he cultivated. He grew up in Aspall, Suffolk, a small village on the eastern coast of England, surrounded by his great grandfather’s apple orchards. He chose to study medicine when he left home, and focused on treating mental illness. Later in life he became a reverend and returned home to Aspall Hall, a manor house and estate purchased by his family in 1702, and still inhabited by his descendants today.

Aspall Hall

Aspall Hall. Image courtesty of Aspall

Busy with the church and his medical practice, he oversaw the estate, but didn’t work it himself. John Andrews was one of the local labourers who tended the fields and woods, and was the fateful man to originally select the barley seed that came to dominate Victorian beer. There are a few variations on how Andrews found the seed, but the best comes from the 1902 edition of The Brewers’ Journal. They write that in 1820 he was returning from a day of threshing Debenham barley, the local landrace named for a village on the River Deben, when he took off his boots to remove something rubbing his foot. The irritation turned out to be ‘a very fine ear of barley,’ promising enough for him to plant in his garden.

Rev. Chevallier happened to notice the promising crop later in the summer while walking by Andrews’ cottage, and asked for some of the seed once it was harvested. He increased the seed over several years until he was able to distribute the grain to others, from which it spread widely, but no records exist to show “that the reverend gentleman himself ever made profit out of his barley.” When he passed away, the final line of his obituary read: “his name will, probably, reach posterity associated with the “Chevallier” barley, which he was first to cultivate, and introduce to the agricultural world.” Those words rang true for the reverend, but sadly, not for the lowly Andrews.

An Award-Winning Empire

Chevallier spread to farm fields and malthouses throughout England, Europe, and eventually North America during the 19th and early 20th centuries. One breeder, E.S. Beaven, noted in an essay on 19th century barley that “before 1886, 80-90 percent of the barley grown in England was the progeny of one plant of this race.” Brewers wanted to brew with it because of its superior qualities, and so farmers and maltsters produced it.

Portrait of Rev. Chevallier

Image courtesty of_ Warminster Maltings

The preference for Chevallier is made obvious by Beaven later in his essay when he describes how it “went into all the best beer of the beer in England for about 100 years. It is my belief that the best samples of Chevallier barley grain were as good malting and brewing material as any we have ever seen since–perhaps better from the point of view of the best brewers. Certainly these brewers thought so, and no one doubts that they knew what was best for their beer.”

Beyond Beaven’s glowing review, the variety had the awards to prove it’s merit too. The Brewers’ Exhibition was a large beer competition in London, and featured valuable prizes for malting barley in The Champion Cup, which was “open to the world.” Beaven analyzed past competitions of the Cup in 1936, and found Chevallier dominated the number of entries and prizes until World War 1, when the Brewers’ Exhibition stopped. By the time it returned in 1919, Chevallier was quickly being replaced by modern hybrids.

Progress and Decline

Cereals were improved through selection for millennia before hybridization was discovered in the 1880’s by Dr. John Garton in England. Barley self pollinates, and requires intervention to cross pollinate and produce a new variety. Garton formed a seed company and began distributing early oat and barley hybrids, including Standwell and Abundance, two varieties we’re growing in The Harlan Society this year.

However, according to historian Christine Clark, “the main pioneers…were the Warminster maltser, E.S. Beaven, and Herbert Hunter, both of whom worked closely with Guinness.” Hunter developed the variety Spratt Archer and Beaven developed Plumage Archer, which became the most popular varieties of malting barley until World War II.

These new hybrids were sturdier than Chevallier, but didn’t have significantly improved yields. Their primary improvement was instead increased extract. Beaven figured his variety Plumage Archer produced “about 10 per cent more beer of the same strength” than Chevallier did, which was a meaningful improvement for brewers. It was at this time that numbers measured in a lab, like extract or nitrogen content, came to define a variety, rather than its sensory characteristics.

Chevallier seed

Chevallier was the last variety to reach prominence under the old understanding of malting quality, when it was assessed by the eye, hand, and tongue of an experienced maltster. Did brewers lament the loss of its flavor? Or did they prefer the improved efficiency of new hybrids? We’ll never know their opinions, but soon we’ll be able to make our own judgements.

Resurrection: Following Maris Otter’s Path

Dr. Chris Ridout is a researcher at the John Innes Centre in England, and was the first to revive Chevallier from the Centre’s seedbank. By 2012 he had sufficient seed to grow a ½ acre of the grain, which produced enough to malt and brew a special beer at Stumptail Brewery in 2013. His research on Chevallier included genetic analysis of the variety, which unexpectedly revealed beneficial disease resistance in addition to its strong flavor and interesting history.

Dr. Ridout’s team has continued increasing the seed, and in 2015, Crisp malted enough to provide small samples to Sierra Nevada, Goose Island, Bell’s, and Tributary Brewing. They each brewed small 2-3 barrel batches of varying historical styles, and produced exciting results.

Some home brewers have gotten their hands on the malt since, with one reviewer saying “the malt does have a rich and complex flavor, more so than Maris Otter or Golden Promise. Tasting notes were along the lines of oven-baked bread, toast crust, earthy-straw, cocoa, and a sweet honey/caramel flavor…the flavor is certainly different than what we normally get – this isn’t a bigger Maris Otter/Golden Promise, it’s a different flavor altogether.” Production continues to be limited, but access should increase each year.

Chevallier is one of the varieties we began growing out last year as a part of The Harlan Society. Access through Crisp will be nice, but we’re working to make local production and increased control possible by providing the seed to interested farmers and maltsters. Why import malts across the Atlantic when we could produce them fresh here? Chevallier will also reveal more flavor and opportunity when a wider audience is manipulating malting conditions in ways Crisp would never venture to.

Logo of Chevallier Malt

Image courtesty of Crisp Maltings and BSG

The Value of Landrace

Chevallier is a remarkable connection to brewing, malting, and agricultural history. Its flavor, disease resistance, and story make it a variety worth growing for more than just its heritage status. Its strengths shouldn’t come as a surprise  – if a large population was committed to growing it for an extended period of time, it must have had great value to them. We believe this has to apply to many other landrace varieties selected and grown by committed groups for generations. From Tibet to Ethiopia, Bavaria to the Caucasus Mountains, landrace barleys were valuable to their keepers, and Chevallier is a prime example of how they could be valuable to us modern brewers too.

Chevallier’s descendents still live at Aspall Hall, and are the 8th generation to make cyder from the trees Clement Chevallier, Rev. Chevallier’s great grandfather, planted in 1728. The contemporary Chevalliers have global ambitions, aiming to see their cyder stocked next to champagne in every 5-star hotel around the world in the next 15 years. I hope to brew a beer from Chevallier malt one day soon, and mix it into a graf with Rev. Chevallier’s family cyder, bringing together the past and the present in a delicious pint.

Aspall Logo

Image courtesty of Aspall