Barley the Beverage Grain: beer, wine and whisky
Updated: Nov 23, 2022
"The whisky-making had its own cycle, and one that everyone on the Ridge was subconsciously attuned to, whether directly involved in it or not. Which was how I knew without asking that the barley in the malting shed had just begun its germination, and therefore, Marsali would be there, turning and spreading the grain evenly before the malting fire was lit." - from A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 27,
Two of the goals of the ancient alchemists were: 1) to turn common metals into gold, and 2) to create an "elixir of life, that would confer youth and longevity."
They didn't succeed, of course, but you could say that the inventors of the whisky distilling process came close. Claire and Jamie's whisky operation on the Ridge converted ordinary grain into what was literally liquid gold, a currency used to pay debts and buy supplies. While drinking it certainly didn't make anyone younger or immortal, it was something of an elixir, used to celebrate the joys and soothe the pain of day-to-day existence.
Of course, there's much more to the barley story than just whisky. So much more, in fact, that this is going to be a lengthy post. You might want to pour yourself a wee dram and settle in.
Species: Hordeum vulgare
Common name: Barley
Barley is native to the area known as the Fertile Crescent. Today, it is cultivated worldwide, with Russia being the top producer as of 2011.
If you think you'd like to grow your own barley, Amy Stewart, aka THE DRUNKEN BOTANIST, says that "a hundred-square-foot plot will produce about ten pounds of barley, enough for a respectable five-gallon batch of home-brewed beer." And although barley isn't terribly fussy about soil, it does have its share of fungal and viral disease issues, so you'll need to take those into account. Take a look at the long list of cultivars here to choose one that is disease resistant. You'll also want a two-row barley vs. a six-row because the two-row varieties have a higher fermentable sugar content.
Barley as a Food and a Medicine
Hippocrates said, "Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food." Barley shines in both categories.
As a food, barley is a nutty-flavored grain that makes a tasty addition to porridge, soups and stews. It is rich in micronutrients such as: molybdenum, manganese, selenium, copper, vitamin B1, chromium, phosphorous, niacin and magnesium. Barley is also a good source of protein: one cup of hulled barley has 23 g of protein, pearled barley, 20 g.
Hulled barley (see photo at the top of the page) has only the outer husk removed, so no nutrients are lost. It is considered a whole grain. Pearled barley has been polished, which removes the germ, taking nutrients with it. Pearled barley is not considered whole grain. (Other forms of barley are: pot or Scotch barley, barley flakes, and barley grits. Nutritional profiles vary because of the processing involved for each.) It takes about 90 minutes to cook hulled barley; 60 minutes for the pearled barley.
If nutritional benefits aren't enough to get you to break out the slow cooker and get some soup on, consider the long list of other health benefits barley offers. Here are highlights from the World's Healthiest Foods website.
• One cup of barley contains 13.6 grams of fiber (for comparison, oats have just 3.98 grams). This insoluble fiber provides food for healthy bacteria in the gut, thus improving immune function. • The fiber in barley helps lower cholesterol and protect against heart disease, gallstones and colon cancer. • Barley ranks low on the glycemic index, making it a particularly good choice for people with type 2 diabetes. There are also studies that suggest that regular consumption of barley and other whole grains may protect against getting type 2 diabetes in the first place. • Barley is a good source of magnesium. This is important because a surprising number of Americans, between 68 - 75%, are said to have magnesium deficiency. Magnesium plays a key role in some 300 bodily functions, affecting how much energy we have, how well we sleep, our muscle function and even our mood. Here is a list of 10 signs to look for to determine whether you might have a magnesium deficiency.
And then there is barley water.
"There is a story told of the Earl of Montrose - that after one battle, he was found lying on the field, half dead of cold and starvation, by a young woman. The young woman whipped off her shoe, mixed barley with cold water in it, and fed the resulting mess to the prostrate earl, thus saving his life."
- from DRUMS OF AUTUMN, Chapter 23, The Skull Beneath the Skin
Since the early 18th century, barley water (not to be confused with barley wine, beer or whisky) was used as "a restorative drink for children and the sick." A quick Google search for "barley water 18th century" will bring up a long list of recipes - nearly all involving pearl barley, boiling water, a bit of sugar and the juice and/or rind of a lemon.
For something a little more more interesting, try this recipe, which includes ginger, cinnamon and honey. If you want something herbal with a kick, try the Chamomile Hot Toddy from The Drunken Botanist.
The downside to barley is that it contains gluten, so foods and beverages made with it are not good for people who are sensitive to gluten or who have celiac disease.
Barley in Brewing
A single-malt whisky, like these, is a blend of whiskies from a single distillery. A blended whisky is a combination of whiskies from two or more distillers.
Seeds are tiny miracles. Each one contains the assembly instructions for making a new plant, along with a stash of starch molecules that contain the energy required for it to grow. All it takes is water to set the process into motion. Water activates enzymes that break the bonds that bind sugars together to make starch. Once those sugars are free, germination can begin.
(If you've ever wondered why starchy foods cause you to gain weight, it is because a starch is really just concentrated sugar. Plants bind sugar molecules together to make a starch, which is a stable, compact unit of storage. When we eat starches, digestion breaks them down again into individual sugars. To experience how this works, try chewing a piece of raw potato. At first, it's chalky tasting, but keep going. As you chew, the enzymes in your saliva will start to break the bonds and the taste will become sweeter.)
What does all of this have to do with brewing? Well, as you may know, sugar is the raw material used to make alcohol. And grains, such as barley, contain a lot of starch which can be converted to sugar via a process called "malting." (I suspect that the process gets its name from "maltose," the principal sugar found in barley and other grains.)
The Drunken Botanist describes how the process begins:
"Traditionally, wet barley grains would be spread on the floor of a malting house and allowed to sprout for about four days, during which time the enzymes in grains gobble up oxygen to help them break down the sugars... They naturally heat up during this process, so workers rake through them and turn them over to keep them cool and to prevent the young roots from becoming entangled."
Marsali's job in the malting shed was to keep the grain moving to prevent scorching and overheating to the point of spontaneous combustion. When the grain has sprouted, heat is applied to stop the seedlings from growing. This step is also important because the smoke from the malting fire adds flavor to the grain.
Again, The Drunken Botanist explains:
"A fire made of peat logs gently dries the the grains over a period of about eight hours, and the smoke infuses them with that delightfully dark, earthy flavor that good Scotch is known for. At least that's how it used to work... Today most Scottish distilleries order their barley from large, commercial malting houses that pipe peat smoke through the grains at whatever level the distillery requests. This allows less peat to be used, helping to conserve bogs. Whisky makers around the world order peat-smoked barley from Scotland if they want to achieve that distinctive flavor."
After a bit of a rest, the dried grains are combined with water to make a mash, which is fermented, then distilled, aged and bottled. The complexity of the process helps explain why a good bottle of Scotch does not come cheap.
If you are a whisky "virgin" and want some advice before springing for a bottle, you should visit Theresa Carle-Sanders' Outlander Kitchen and read this post. There you'll find suggestions for whiskies to try. While you're in the Kitchen, be sure to check out her Weekend Whisky Write-Ups, too.
I can't leave the subject of whisky before mentioning another Outlander connection: Bonnie Prince Charlie and Drambuie. The recipe for this liqueur - made with Scotch, heather honey, cloves, saffron, herbs and a secret combination of spices - was created for the Prince by his Royal Apothecary. In gratitude for his rescue from the Battle of Culloden, Charlie is said to have given the recipe for the secret elixir to Highland Clan Chief John MacKinnon. The recipe was passed down through the generations until the 1870s when John Ross began to sell it commercially on the Isle of Skye. For a classic drink made with Drambuie, try Theresa's recipe for Jamie's Rusty Nail.
Barley wine was developed in England in the late 18th century when that country's conflict with France meant that strong drink, particularly claret, wasn't available. It was brewed exclusively for the British aristocracy, with an alcohol content ranging between 8% and 12%. It was marketed to the general public in England for the first time in the 1870s as Bass No. 1 Ale. The first American barley wine was introduced by Anchor Brewing Company in the 1970s, under the name Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale.
English barley wine tends to be a darker, smoother, less hoppy beverage than the American style. The American version is more bitter, with more hops flavor and a lighter, amber color. The barley wine shown at left, brewed in Washington state by the Port Townsend Brewing Company, has a rich, red-amber color, a strong hops flavor, a smooth finish and a 10.5% alcohol content.
After the glamour of whisky and barley wine, beer seems downright ordinary - perhaps because it is. Beer is the world's most widely consumed alcoholic beverage. After water and tea, it is the next most popular beverage worldwide. Beer is also likely the oldest fermented drink with the Celts and Germanic tribes brewing it as far back as 3000 BC. It may even trace its origins to the Neolithic era around 9500 BC, when cereal grain was first farmed.
Beer is brewed using malted barley and sometimes wheat. Hops are added to provide flavor, bitterness and something of a preservative. There are many variations on this theme, resulting in brews that vary in color, flavor and alcohol content. Styles include: lager, stout, wheat, pale ale, and lambic.
John Barleycorn Must Die
Beer. Whisky. Barley wine. Sometimes the party gets out of hand. And when it does, lives are ruined. When I first heard "John Barleycorn Must Die," back in the 1960s, it sounded to me like a revenge song. I thought it was about wanting to destroy barley to get even for all the destruction "demon drink" had caused.
But the most famous version of the Legend of John Barleycorn, by Scottish poet Robert Burns,tells quite a different story. Barley is "portrayed as an almost Christ-like figure, suffering greatly before finally dying in order that others may live." Burns' poem provides the lyrics of the familiar folksong.
There you have it - versatile barley. Good nutrition, PLUS wine, whisky, and song. Please enjoy responsibly.