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Barleycorn's Revenge

Or how I learned to malt barley and thresh like an Egyptian

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Good and fed up with John Barleycorn last fall, I plowed him down in the ground and, as in the ballad by ol' Robert Burns, "put clods upon his head." Would that it was the end of him.

I was inspired by my visit last year with brewer Nile Zacherle, who experimentally grew barley on four acres of fallow Napa Valley vineyard land for his Mad Fritz beer ("Craft Malt," Bohemian, Sept. 23, 2015) and tantalizing rumors of other such projects. Up in Ukiah, Mendocino Grain Project's Doug Mosel has grown wheat for Almanac Beer Co., and says there's interest from brewers for locally grown barley. Malted barley is, after all, the main ingredient in beer—besides water—and in an industry that constantly emphasizes pride of place like craft brewing, locally grown barley is sorely lacking.

Native to the Middle East, Hordeum vulgare, which is barley's stripper name—wait, no, barley's Latin name, sorry—grows just about anywhere that hay grows OK. Hay is for horses, while beer made from homegrown barley is for heroes. Besides a little honest toil, a bead of sweat or two off the brow, what could be easier?

After growing, malting and brewing my own barley into a sort of beer, I am completely amazed that ancient civilizations ever discovered brewing in the first place, and having gone through the hassle, why they didn't quit at once and go back to fermenting goat's milk. Yak's milk. Pinot Grigio—anything.

A SIMPLE PLAN

I bought a pound or two of barley at a farm-supply store, scattered the seeds over an area of 700 or so square feet and raked them in the ground with a sort of harrow, the design of which the less said, the better. And waited for rain.

On schedule, John Barleycorn got up again, and was easy to spot. Stout green blades of grass sprung out of the dirt, promptly catching the eye of a resident jackrabbit, also. For several months, I figured the well-mown barley crop was merely a donation to said bunny. Nevertheless, John Barleycorn, "weel arm'd wi' pointed spears," as our friend Burns put it, did sprout from the low-growing grass. By May, the seed heads had drooped and dried, and were ready to harvest.

This crop was too small even for the compact research plot combine operated by the Mendocino Grain Project that harvested Zacherle's barley. I could have gone old-school with a scythe, but recalled what a grim (anyone?) failure it was when, years ago, I once tried mowing tall grass that way. I settled on kitchen scissors, which made for a slow-going spectacle. Indeed, I more than once heard a mocking voice—if only in my own head—quip, "That's a hell of a way to brew a pint of beer, buddy!"

AN UNDERQUALIFIED PEASANT IN THE WRONG CENTURY

You've heard about separating the wheat from the chaff? Same goes for barley. The kernels had to be separated from the mass of straw I'd collected, but without machinery of any kind, I turned to ancient Egyptian murals for reference. One way to thresh a crop is to beat the straw with a stick, but I settled on stomping and hopping around on an oil-stained garage, or threshing, floor. For this step, there was no imagined voice to mock me—just a few imagined, sadly shaking heads.

But when I brushed aside the spent straw, something wonderful was revealed, and gave me an ancient thrill to behold: a healthy pile of perfect, golden grains. After winnowing the remaining chaffs and spikes, I had 12 pounds of barley to brew.

THE UNEXPECTED HABITS OF THE ENDOSPERM

But not just yet. To prepare the starchy endosperm of the grain for brewing, it must first be malted, a process I'd only vaguely understood to have something to do with sprouting. In pictures I've seen of the malting floors of Scottish distilleries, this looks picturesque and tidy enough; up close, sprouting barley—trigger warning!—resembles a tangled mass of wriggling white spiders, or, as a friend to whom I'd texted a photo of this said, "Will looking at this make me pregnant?"

While the chits, or rootlets, emerge from the kernel and search for Mother Earth, inside the grain the turgid acrospire reaches for the sky. So you can see where ancient pagan cultures might have got some of their racier religious ideas.

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