Arrangements were made swiftly, and I wish I could say decisively. This was a big decision, and I carefully considered all ramifications. Once I agreed, however, there was no turning back, and I prepared myself mentally for the adventure to come. Boarding a flight at the break of dawn, I touched down in Jackson Hole, Wyoming without fanfare, or even coffee. Still, my mind and heart were racing. Stumbling off the plane, I had to consciously force myself to relax. Deep breaths, eyes closed, that whole thing. Yeah, I was both nervous and excited… I was finally going to meet Barley.
Full Disclosure: This trip was arranged and hosted (and yes, completely paid for) by Budweiser. But all words and opinions and strong feelings toward this lovely grain are mine and mine alone.
So that’s how I ended up standing in a field in Idaho on a Monday that was supposed to be a work day, my love for Barley finally requited. A small yet fortunate group of media types joined me, listening to barley farmer Clark Hamilton describe the growing process – when to plant and harvest, differences in yield between irrigated and “dry” fields, catastrophic losses the previous year from a month-long rain – as I gazed longingly into these fields of gold, strains of a Sting song scoring my subconscious. You see, the seeds of this passion had been germinating for some time, and were now in full flower*. I sighed and pondered my emotion for Barley and its favorite offspring, beer.
The Budweiser folks tossed around a simple but true aphorism – No Barley, No Beer. (I believe Bob Marley said that originally?) This phrase is beautiful in its honesty, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I’m not talking about the whole “But what about the hops and yeast?” story, (’cause that should be obvious), but rather the “what makes barley so important, and how does it get there?” part of the story. There is, apparently, more to that tale than I had imagined, even as a homebrewer. That’s where guys like the aforementioned Mr. Hamilton come into play, and the reason I was so psyched about this trip. I wanted to know all about the life of my beloved Barley. Or, at least, as much as I could absorb in a day and a half.
It starts in fields like that one in Idaho, rain and soil and seed and time combine to grow these waist high (on me anyway) stalks of golden goodness. Harvesting the tiny grains and delivering them to the malting plant comes next, leaving the bare essentials of the barley to be processed into a form that will eventually be used by brewers to make their beer happen. Turning grain into malt is a very cool, but overlooked, thing. The process is fairly simple, but the sciencing to get it just right is complex, and the resulting differences can be varied. But I won’t bore you with stories of breaking down proteins and amylase production and such. Suffice it to say that a good maltster can provide quite a range of flavors to meet the brewers’ needs… all from the same crop of barley. You want it darker? Just leave it in the kiln a little longer. Sweeter? More earthy? They can do that too! I swear it’s not magic, but the final products are almost as diverse as the beer styles you can find in your local bottle shop. Pale. Caramel. Pilsner. Roasted. Vienna. They’re all just different iterations from the same original ingredient, molded into the building blocks of brewing by those wizards in the malting towers.
Whatever they’re doing in that particular plant I visited, they are most certainly doing tons of it. Literally. At the same time. I believe the actual figure was ONE MILLION POUNDS in each batch. No matter your opinions on the final product, that’s damned impressive. Yet I did not come to praise Budweiser… nor to bury them. I came to wax rhapsodic upon the grain of grains, and into that bounty of barley I would have gladly dived (and thanked my gracious hosts for the opportunity, as the police dragged me away). I managed to contain myself, however, and listened intently as the Anheuser-Busch team of experts continued to dropped their knowledge upon us. Cross-breeding of different strains, increased yields, winter heartiness. Even a cute little test-batch cross-breed they named “Growler” that caught my eye… So much learning, all in the name of beer. Then I completed my day with a picturesque journey back to Jackson Hole and a lovely meal on the farm, the not-so-distant mountains a constant companion. Not a bad way to spend a Monday.
The next morning, I sat on a plane with a fellow beer writer** and watched as he carefully stowed a few strands of barley in an envelope for safe travels back to his home in Maryland. It was then I realized I was not alone in my love for Barley. And at that moment, I also knew it was quite alright. There is more than enough for all of us…
Drink well, my friends.
*Forgive me, my little rosebuds, for occasionally delving into the poetic and/or punny.
**Check out Literature and Libation, seriously.