Sunday, 1 February 2015
Norwich, barley and malt
I’d been invited by some of the folks from Goose Island to tag along on a visit to a barley breeder and a maltster. I was dead excited because of the type of barley to be discussed: Chevallier.
The most exciting news (well, beer-related news) I heard last year was of the revival of Chevallier barley. At last, there was a chance to fix something that had been troubling me for a while.
I’ve noticed that, the more I’ve got into historic brewing and recreating historic beers, I moved from just replicating the recipe as well as possible with modern ingredients. I’ve taken one more step to look at older malting and brewing techniques. And old barley varieties.
Beer’s ingredients are weird. While there are plenty of new hop varieties, older ones still soldier on. Goldings and Fuggles walk side by side with Chinook and Nelson Sauvin. But with barley, it’s a different matter. The oldest variety regularly grown, Maris Otter, celebrates its 50th birthday this year. Most varieties come and go within a decade. It’s frustrating, as it limits how far you can go into the past with full authenticity.
Until now. Because Chevallier is back. The favourite barley variety not just of Victorian Britain, but the whole world. My trip to East Anglia would tell me how and why.
Chevallier was first selected in 1820 by a Mr. Chevallier. It became incredibly popular and for a century was the most widely-grown type of malting barley. Its demise was brought about by the work of Beavan, amongst others, in breeding new crosses. With their improved yield per acre, these quickly supplanted Chevallier. But even when it was in decline, Ckevallier was loved by brewers – much like Maris Otter today – and beers brewed using it continued to win prizes.
Early Friday morning I met the Goose Island lads at Norwich station. Two people from the John Innes Centre were also there and they whisked us off to, er, the John Innes Centre. Where the plant breeding was going on.
Soon there we were. In a meeting room, two sheaves of barley decorating the table in the presence of the man responsible for the return of Chevallier barley, Chris Ridout.
It was Chris who had the idea of plucking a handful of Chevallier seeds from a seed bank and starting to build up enough to plant it commercially. There were two purposes. First to bring back Chevallier into production, but also to investigate its disease resistance.
They don’t want to grow Chevallier for the sake of it. They want to make sure they produce good malt and ultimately good beer. Which is why Crisp the maltsters have also been involved.
But the first challenge was learning how to grow Chevallier. It may sound stupid, but one strain of barley isn’t like every other. And the qualities of Chevallier are different enough that it requires different farming techniques. Ones which have been forgotten in the century since Chevallier was last grown.
First there’s Chevallier’s size. It’s 50 cm taller than modern varieties and tends to fall over. So it’s treated with a chemical that limits the growth of the stalk
Chevallier is also a nitrogen scavenger, which means it requires less fertiliser than modern varieties. Getting the amount of fertiliser right is essential if the nitrogen and protein content in the barley are to suitable for brewing.
It took a few years to get enough seed to grow a usable amount of barley. In 2012 a half acre was grown at the John Innes centre. It was malted at Crisp and used by Chris to brew a beer at his own Stumptail Brewery, Heritage IPA.
In 2013 about 500 kg of Chevallier was available for malting. In 2014 5 hectares were planted, producing 15 tonnes of grain, of which 4 tonnes was malted, the rest being used for seed. But 2015 is the year when the amounts start getting serious. Three farmers will be sowing it soon and they’re expected to harvest around 200 tonnes.
Wonderful news. But it gets even better. They’re looking at other heritage barley varieties to revive. There was one name that caught my eye. It shows just how nerdy I am. A name I recognise from brewing literature: Hanna, one of the classic central European barleys. Authentic 19th-century Pilsener anyone?