Could we be making more of Barley?

Barley is the second largest arable crop in the UK (after wheat).  It remains an important cereal because of its ability to survive in cold and wet conditions, so although it is grown throughout most of the UK, in the north, where growing conditions are most difficult for wheat, it is often the dominant arable crop.

Of the 6.5 million tonnes produced in the UK each year approximately 2 million tonnes are malted by the brewing and distilling trades.  About 1.5 million tonnes are exported for the same purpose, often to countries like China that have developed the western taste for beer.  The remaining 3 tonnes, i.e. almost half of what we grow, is used for animal feed.  ₁

Malting Barley

The specifications for malting are high and usually only achieved by the lower yielding spring varieties.  It is difficult to obtain accurate information about the amount of malting barley that is imported into the UK, and a couple of years ago there was quite an issue when the predominantly foreign owned whisky distilleries were unwilling to offer any form of contract, making it too risky for Scottish farmers to sow spring Barley. This has apparently now been rectified, and Scottish whisky is again more frequently being made with Scottish Barley – but it is a question that we consumers need to be asking.

With regard to barley malted for beer, this has been a real success story in British agriculture.  Unlike whisky, which as a very exportable product has seen the small distillery become a thing of the past so that the majority are in the ownership of just a handful of large corporations, micro-breweries are thriving.  When I recently interviewed the owner of Warminster Maltings, Robin Appel, he estimated that about 300 of their 800 customers fell into the artisan category (40 of which are overseas).  He told me there are about 80 new breweries each year, many of which are being opened with the redundancy payouts of those who had previously been just hobby brewers.  True, there is quite a high fall out amongst these, but still a net gain of about 50-60 breweries per annum.

Warminster Maltings make a special point of matching growers of barley with brewers so that several beers can now claim to be truly local.   Robin had first-hand experience of how popular this is with drinkers when he arranged such a link-up in his own village of Droxford in Hampshire.  An integral part of stimulating interest was to put up signs in the fields where the barley was growing, so that locals walking their dogs might know that they were walking alongside Maris Otter barley destined for turning into beer by the village brewery, Bowman Beers.  The beer was named Bowman’s SHB (Stephen Horn’s Bitter) in honour of the farmer who had grown the barley.  The whole village were invited to come along for the first tasting in their pub, The Baker’s Arms and it was full to overflowing.

Robin is keen to continue to promote the link between farmer and brewery.  This year, if you holiday in Cornwall, look out for the signs telling you that fields of Maris Otter Barley are being grown for St. Austell’s Brewery – their sales of Tribute were up 20% last year.  Ringwood Brewery in Hampshire had seen a similar surge in sales following the placement of boards in barley fields alongside the A303.  Clearly this initiative is getting to the competitors, as last year one of those hoardings was sabotaged. Other breweries already linked to local farmers are Skinners in Cornwall, Hobson’s in Herefordshire and Stonehouse in Oswestry.

This linking of growers and brewers is not the only inspirational aspect of Warminster Maltings, as their story records, but let’s continue now with the role of Barley in British agriculture.

Barley for Culinary Use

If you have been doing the maths so far you will have noted that the use of barley for anything other than malting or animal feed is so negligible that it does not even register.  Yet barley was, and still should be, enjoyed for culinary purposes.  Pot barley has had its inedible outer casing removed, but still retains all of its bran and germ making it a highly nutritious alternative to brown rice and especially good for salads.  The more readily available pearled barley has been further processed to remove the bran making it much lighter in flavour and a good substituted for white rice or in the spelt recipes I have given previously.

Risotto has become a fairly staple dish in Britian and, if we are to move a little away from our “meat and two veg” meal structure, we do need something like it to enable vegetables to become a main course.  But even in Italy, the home of risotto, it is eaten predominantly in the regions in which the rice is grown.  Italians are far more attuned to making the best of the ingredients around them and remain fiercely regional in their cuisine.  Hence in the Friuli region of northern Italy, where like us they grow barley, they make a version of risotto using pearled barley, called Orzotto.  Cooked in the same manner as risotto, pearl barley retains some bite, although less than spelt, producing a creamy finish that is comparable to risotto rice.  To be fair, I have been served Orzotto in Scotland, but I think the dish is still relatively unknown here although pearled barley remains an essential thickening ingredient in traditional Scottish, Irish and Italian stews or broths and turns a soup into a complete, satisfying and nourishing, meal.   Perhaps all that is needed is a champion of barley to equal what Roger Saul of Sharpham Park has done for Spelt.

Barley in Bread

Despite its low gluten content barley was still the predominant grain used for making bread, often in the form of trenchers – flat loaves that served as plates, right up until the 16th century.  And although the majority of Britain switched to wheat as soon as they were able, barley remained popular for much longer in Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man.  Whilst most modern varieties of barley are “two-rowed” an ancient “6-rowed” barley or Bere is still grown in the far north of Scotland.  In 2007 work by Cathy Southworth identified three distinct genetic groups of bere: one on Orkney, one on Shetland and a large and highly diverse group formed by the Hebrides.₂   The remoteness of these islands has helped preserve the purity of this ancient grain, remains of which were found at Skara Brae on Orkney dating back to 3100 BC.  Beremeal is used mainly for making bannocks – flat unleavened rounds baked on a girdle – a large round is usually cut into triangles, or farls, much like soda bread.  Beremeal Bannocks have a distinctive, slightly astringent taste, which is not to the liking of all southern palates but worth seeking out if you venture this far north as an ancient, regional, and very authentic taste experience.

Apart from griddle baked bannocks, which are lightened with bicarbonate of soda, if you want to use barley in yeast leavened bread you will need to mix it with twice its weight of wheat flour to get the gluten content. ₃.

Smaller amounts of barley are included in most granary breads, particularly the malted grains – bringing us back full circle to malting grain for beer-making.  The link between baking and brewing is ancient, brewer’s yeast or a beer barm having been the leavening agent before commercially manufactured baker’s yeast became widely available and remaining in use for longer in those parts of the country where barley is the predominant grain.

Malt in Baking

Although used in only very small quantities, it is perhaps relevant here to consider malted barley as used in baking.

Malt extract is also used by the baking industry for sweetening/flavouring and sometimes as a dough improver.  To understand these roles it is necessary to understand more about the malting process itself.

The Malt House emulates the conditions of warmth and moisture that the grain would encounter in nature that cause it to germinate.  It is at this point that the seed is richest in the starch it needs to feed the plant as it grows.  When the seeds have grown clearly discernible sprouts and softened to the extent that you can easily squash the grain between your thumb and forefinger, it is time to halt the process with heat.  This is done by roasting, which gives the malt its distinctive flavour.  Provided the heat is not taken too high, the natural enzyme diastase, which converts starch into sugar, will not be destroyed.  The sugar produced as a result of this enzyme is called maltose, and it is half as sweet as sucrose (table sugar).  In our bodies, maltose is the first step in the digestion of starchy foods.  It is then broken down into glucose.   However,  malt sugar, whilst in itself a much healthier sugar than sucrose, is metabolised by the body much faster, resulting in a sugar surge and then dip unless it is eaten in conjunction with other foods that will slow down this process.  Thus toast made from malted grains, if eaten with an egg, will provide energy throughout the morning whereas a breakfast cereal made with malted grains causes similar surges in blood glucose and insulin to sugar-coated cereals.

Maltose is a simple sugar that can easily metabolised by yeast.  Usually sufficient maltose is contained in the bread flour to feed the yeast throughout fermentation, but if either the flour is somewhat deficient in this aspect, or the fermentation time is very long (as is the case when wild yeasts are used to make a sourdough, the supply of maltose may be exhausted before the end of fermentation.  This would result a very pale crust and less well risen dough.  A very small amount of malt flour, say 0.1%, of the total is needed to correct this, but the malt flour must be diastatic (i.e. the heating process must not have destroyed the enzyme diastase).  Too much diastatic activity can make the dough gummy, leading to partial or even complete collapse.  If you want to add just the malty flavour, without the enzyme action, buy non-diastatic malts – these are the ones usually sold in health food shops, often in liquid form.  Both types and further information are available from .


The market for malting barley looks set to continue to expand with growing demand for western style beers.  This is a crop that ideally suits our climate and we have developed the expertise in malting and we should be net exporters.  At the very least we should be able to fulfil all of the demand for the home based breweries and distilleries.

Whilst barley for culinary use is a much smaller market, we seem so far to have completely overlooked the potential of this home grown, highly nutritious grain that in particular could reduce our import of rice.


Orzotto with Sorrel

Beremeal Bannocks

Spelt Recipes where Barley could be substituted


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