With the modern craft beer revolution kickstarted by the impactful flavours of new world hops, malts have taken a backseat to the punchy little green flower. Indeed, as the craft beer scene has grown and developed and changed, it’s been all about double (or triple) dry-hopping, hop flocculation, cryo hops, and how many grams of hops you’re chucking in per litre of wort; it’s hops, hops and more hops.
Today, the team at Crisp Malt are looking to put some of the spotlight back onto malt.
Through their Heritage Barley Project, Crisp have looked to brewing’s rich past for inspiration, and have uncovered some rare gems with incredible, unique flavours. We speak to Crisp’s Colin Johnston and David Griggs about bringing barley back…
“The origins of the Heritage Barley Project were laid six or seven years ago,” says David Griggs, Technical Director at Crisp. “It starts at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, which is one of the UK’s largest plant science research facilities.”
It was there that a group of scientists were testing cereals’ resistances to various diseases, such as Fusarium, and housed a collection of preserved seeds; one such seed was Chevallier. In the 1820s, Chevallier became Britain’s main malting barley and held that title for almost 100 years. By the early 20th century, however, it had almost died out completely.
As part of their research, the team in Norwich discovered that Chevallier exhibited resistance to Fusarium and, as such, would be suitable for incorporation into modern plant breeding programmes, but were also interested in its revival and modern use in the brewing process.
“So, [The John Innes Centre] approached Crisp and asked whether we’d be interested in working with them to produce some limited quantities of Chevallier malt – which was duly done,” David tells us. “We’ve been working with [them] not only on Chevallier but to bring forward other interesting old varieties.”
Enter Haná. The Haná variety of barley was first developed and grown in the Haná area of Czech Moravia, an area of Europe long fabled for its high-quality malting barley. Haná malt’s early claim to fame was that it made up the mash of the first ever, golden-blond Pilsner lager, which was created in 1842 by Bavarian brewmaster Josef Groll at the Meštiansky Pivovar of Plzeň (or Pilsen) in Bohemia.
Last grown in the 20th century, the team at Crisp has now taken a few Haná seeds and grown them up over successive generations on prime Norfolk malting barley land; they have harvested them and slowly and carefully steeped, germinated and gently kilned them on their 1870s floor maltings.
It has taken the team at Crisp around five years to get from identifying that there was Haná seed available to where we are today. A lot of time, effort and, indeed, money has gone into bringing back this classic variety, making it an expensive crop. As a result, the availability of the barley will never be huge; Haná will remain a rare ingredient and a hard to come by flavour experience.
Much of Haná’s first batch has made its way to Hilden Brewery in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, where the brand-new range of Brewhive beers will be produced. Haná is the star ingredient in the range’s new Bohemian Pilsner Czech Please, lending the beer incredible flavours of freshly baked bread, subtle malt sweetness and a clean, smooth finish.
“The Haná that’s gone to Hilden Brewery is part of a 16-tonne batch, so that’s relatively small,” says Colin Johnston, Craft Brewing and Distilling Sales Manager at Crisp. “That’s the very first commercial scale maltings of the revived variety and this is part of our figuring-out-what-the-flavour-is-like stage, but the feedback we’ve had so far is that is does have really interesting flavour qualities.”
Flavour is absolutely key to what the team at Crisp are trying to achieve, and it’s a new way of thinking when it comes to malted barley. For so long, flavour has been an afterthought.
As Colin explains: “The big drivers are the farm yield, resistance to disease, stalk strength and height, and all these factors, but really it’s never been about increasing or accentuating flavours. It’s always been about yield to the farmer, yield in terms of extract to the brewer or distiller, and so one of the big interests for us with these older varieties is: ‘is there a distinct flavour?’
“That’s what it’s all about. There’s no point in reviving heritage barleys because they’re old, because they were popular. Our thinking around it is, they were popular for so long and they have great lineage as well, let’s go back to the original source and try to understand what was unique about them from a flavour perspective.
“Ultimately for us, it’s about chasing flavour. It’s about understanding how variety impacts the flavour of the malt and therefore the flavour of the beer. Exploring flavour is where craft beer is at, and we want to be part of that.”
Colin is right. Craft beer is, and always has been, about flavour and when, at its most fundamental, beer is only made up of four ingredients, it’s a shame that one has been so overlooked. What the team at Crisp are doing is incredible and the Heritage Barley Project is just one small part of it. While hops may have kickstarted the craft beer revolution, the Crisp team are ensuring that malts are what’s going to take it to the next level.