Small-Batch Barley

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Photo by Adobe Stock/Teen00000

Barley is a cereal grain, in the same botanical family (Poaceae) as wheat, maize, rice, oats, rye, and sorghum. A cool-season crop that matures relatively quickly, barley grows best in climates where highs reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the weeks before harvest. It can be planted in late fall as winter barley, in which case it’ll sprout, overwinter, and then mature in early spring. Barley can also be planted in spring, if there’s enough time for it to grow before summer temperatures reach 85 degrees. Spring barley usually matures in about 90 days.

In the United Sates, commercial barley is typically grown in regions north of those where corn and wheat, which thrive in higher temperatures, are grown. The most extensive U.S. barley fields are in Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Washington. Barley is also grown in Canada, with Alberta producing the most. Over the past few decades, barley production has moved farther north. Corn and wheat both command higher prices than barley, and genetically modified varieties of these crops exist that grow in cooler climates. As a result, farmers have switched from growing barley to growing corn and wheat. Additionally, climate change is making it more risky to grow barley in the former southern edge of the barley regions.

In the past, barley was grown primarily for malting (for the production of beer and spirits) and animal feed, with much smaller amounts grown for human consumption. Malted barley commanded a higher price, and most farmers grew malting varieties. If barley failed to meet the standards required for brewing, it could be sold as animal feed on the spot market at a lower price. There are also cultivars of barley bred especially for use as animal feed. Today, almost all malting barley grown in the United States is under contract with malting companies — the companies that turn barley into malt for brewing and distilling. The contracts protect the growers against crop failures, but lock them into agreed-upon prices.

Barley can sprout in temperatures as low as 34-degrees Fahrenheit, and will be “bushlike” at first.
Photo by Flickr/Forest and Kim

Most barley cultivars will grow to be 2 to 3 feet tall, at which point they’ll develop seed heads.
Photo by Flickr/Forest and Kim

When close to harvest, barley plants will begin to turn from green to yellow as they dry out.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Soru Epotok

Grow Your Own Barley 

In the United States, barley can be grown in Zones 3 through 9. You can plant it in a garden or on a small-scale farm. If you live in the northern part of the country, plant barley in spring. Elsewhere, plant it in late fall. Barley can sprout at temperatures as low as 34 degrees. Generally, if the soil is workable, you can plant barley. Contact your local extension office to get the optimal planting time for your area

Barley grows well in average garden soil. For site preparation, thoroughly weed the area, and then use a heavy rake to break up any clumps of dirt and flatten the ground. Running a tiller over the site first will save you some work. Then, use a thick-tined rake to make shallow rows in the soil. Check the seed packaging for planting-density requirements, but in a garden, 1 pound of seed per 500 square feet should be about right. For a small-scale farm, choose a seeding rate that yields 120 to 150 plants per square meter.

In a garden, you can hand-broadcast barley seed. I do this by breaking up the total amount of seed into thirds. I then cast the first one-third of the seed over the entire area, trying to cover the ground as evenly as possible. I repeat this with the second one-third, and then use the final one-third to even things out as much as possible. Most of the seed will fall into the furrows left by the rake. Use the rake to push the soil over the rows and bury the seed. Ideally, the seed should be 1 to 11/2 inches below the soil surface. Birds will likely eat any unburied seed, so cover as much as possible. If planting on a larger scale, you’ll need to use a seed spreader that plants the seeds in rows.

Water the barley in, but don’t soak the soil. Too much water early on will depress the yield. Keep the soil evenly watered throughout the growing season, but don’t water heavily — the soil should be lightly moist at all times, but never wet.

Barley doesn’t require heavy fertilization. In fact, too much nitrogen yields more vegetative growth, which makes barley prone to lodging. (The stems bend over close to ground level, making harvest difficult and decreasing yield.) In addition, the percentage of plump kernels — a measure of barley quality — decreases with increased nitrogen levels. Increased nitrogen also causes increased levels of protein, which isn’t desirable in malting barley. The percentage of nitrogen in the kernels shouldn’t exceed 12 percent if grown for malting or human consumption; higher percentages are fine for barley grown as animal feed. In a commercial field, the existing weight of nitrogen in 1 acre of soil plus the added nitrogen should equal 190 to 210 pounds per acre. Thus, a soil analysis prior to planting is required to know how much nitrogen to add. For typical garden soil, adding about 1 pound of granular fertilizer (40-0-0 or similar) to 500 square feet should put you in the ballpark — especially if the garden plot previously held heavy feeders. In relatively rich garden soil, less than half this amount may be required. Add the fertilizer around the time of planting, and don’t add any more nitrogen fertilizer for the rest of the growing season.

Barley needs much less phosphorous and potassium — the “P” and “K” in NPK fertilizer ratings — than it does nitrogen. If soil phosphorous (P) levels are below 20 parts per million (ppm), an application of P2O5 — 30 pounds per acre at most — will remedy that. Likewise, add potassium fertilizer if soil potassium (K) levels are below 75 ppm. In average garden soil, you likely won’t need to add any fertilizer.

Sulfur is the minor nutrient that barley requires most­ — around 10 ppm — but you likely won’t need to add any to average garden soil.

Weed the barley patch as needed when the plants are young. Once they grow a bit, they’ll shade out weeds on their own. If you’re growing barley on a small-scale farm, you may want to compare your crop with the growth stages commonly seen in your area. In barley growing regions, local universities or extension offices will have this information.

Kilning—part of the malting process—darkens barley and helps it develop flavor compounds.
Photo by Adobe Stock/KeilaRob

Growth Stages and Harvest Methods

You’ll first see the coleoptile of the barley poke through the soil. Then, a series of leaves will grow along the stem. These will appear singly, opposite one another. Most barley cultivars have nine or more leaves. The plant will exist as a “bush” initially, with the leaves close to each other.

After the first several leaves emerge, tillers, or secondary stems, will begin to sprout from the ground. Some tillers, as well as the main stem, will develop seed heads, while others will wither away. The more sparsely planted a barley field, the more tillering will occur.

When the plant has produced most of its leaves, the stem will elongate, increasing the space between leaves. Most barley cultivars grow 2 to 3 feet tall. Eventually, the seed head will form. At first, the seed head will be shielded by the final leaf, called the “flag leaf.” The kernels in the seed head will fill with a starchy white liquid, which will solidify as the grain matures. Then, the plants will turn from green to yellow. Once the starch in the kernels is dried and hardened, the barley is ready to harvest.

Rainfall or irrigation at harvest time is undesirable, as it can cause the grain kernels to sprout on the stalk. Watch your weather forecast closely when the grain is almost ready. It’s better to get the crop in early than to let it get soaked by a thunderstorm. Commercially, barley is harvested with a combine. As a gardener, you can cut barley plants with a scythe. I use a large chef’s knife. Then, bundle the plants into sheaves and let them dry in the sun.


On commercial farms, threshing is done with a combine. If growing on a small scale, you’ll need to find an alternative way to thresh the grain. One way is to cut the stems fairly close to the seed head and then place them in a pillowcase. Then, beat the pillowcase with a baseball bat or a large, soft mallet. Clean the resulting mix of kernels and other plant material by pouring the kernels back and forth between two buckets on a windy day, or in front of a fan. The breeze will blow away the chaff while the kernels drop into the buckets. The grain will then be ready to use.

Barley is a somewhat unusual garden choice, but many gardeners — myself included — enjoy growing something new each year. For homebrewers, barley provides an opportunity to expand your brewing horizons. Also, as a grain grower, I feel a connection to countless generations of those who grew and threshed their cereal grains every year. So, cheers to barley growers everywhere!

The malting process provides the fermentable carbohydrates necessary to brew beer.
Photo by Adobe Stock/ID-ART

Malting Barley for Brewing

Barley, like other grains, must be malted before it can be used for brewing. Malting is a process in which grain seeds are steeped, sprouted, dried, and kilned. The sprouting process activates the seeds and leads to the production of enzymes required for early growth of the barley plant. These enzymes will later be exploited to convert starches in the grain into simpler sugars. Kilning heats the grain, darkens the husk, and develops flavor compounds that carry over into the finished beer. Malting also results in an overall softening of the grain that’s due to modification of the endosperm — the starchy interior of each kernel. Malt provides both the fermentable carbohydrates required to brew beer and the “malty” flavor in beer. This malty flavor is sometimes described as “bready” or “biscuitlike.”

Steeping. The first step is to steep dried barley seeds in water until they achieve a moisture content of 45 percent. This is done through a repeated process of submerging the barley in water and then draining the water from the seeds, while keeping the seeds wet. The stage during which barely is submerged is called “wet stands,” and the stage during which the water is drained is called “air rests.” The temperature needs to be held between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit during these stages. At home, you can steep barley grains in a bucket. Start by weighing a sample volume of seed. (One cup is a good volume to start with, but any volume will do.) Then, steep the barley, alternating between 8-hour wet stands and 8-hour air rests, until you’ve gone through three cycles. At this point, the grain should weigh 1.3 times more than it did before, assuming it has 45 percent moisture.

Germination. After steeping, spread the grain out on a flat surface in a layer about 1 inch thick. An extremely clean cement surface will work, as will a large, shallow storage container. During this stage, the grain will begin to germinate. As the home maltster, you’ll need to hold the temperature below 55 degrees, and turn the grain every 4 to 6 hours. You’ll also need to spritz the grain with water to prevent drying.

Drying and kilning. Once germinated, you’ll see the acrospire (the beginning of the stem) and the rootlets extending from the seeds. When most of the acrospires are between the length of their kernels and 1-1/2 times the length of their kernels, it’s time to dry the malt. This can be done in a food dehydrator. Dry the grain at around 120 degrees for 24 hours. Your sample volume should weigh slightly less than it did initially.

Finally, to make pale barley malt, spread the grain in a thin layer — one kernel deep — over a cookie pan, and kiln the grain in an oven at 180 degrees for four hours. 

The malt will work best if you employ a decoction mash, but a single-infusion mash will also work.

Chris Colby is a scientist, writer, homebrewer, gardener, and contributing editor of Beer and Wine Journal. He lives with his wife and cats in Bastrop, Texas.

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