A couple of months ago I (guest author, Steev Hise), posted my first guest post here about growing my own hops plants in Tucson, for use in homebrewed beer. Today I’d like to tell you about my recent efforts to grow another major beer ingredient, barley.
Barley is a grain similar to wheat, and shares a lot of the same properties and growing guidelines with wheat. I grew up in Iowa, and my step-father frequently brought the family back to the farm he grew up on in Nebraska to help out with the plowing, harvesting, and other things that the wheat still being farmed there needed. However, that was a large, relatively industrialized farm, so my understanding of how to grow grains on a small scale in my yard was quite limited.
After reading a little of the basics in homebrewing books, I decided to research further and found that the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension web site had lots of helpful information about growing grain in the arid southwest. Of particular interest was a document about planting methods, another about planting dates, and a third on irrigation. These are still assuming a much larger crop size than what I’m doing, but it got me started, and the rest is a matter of reasoning out the scaling factor between many acres and a few square feet. Still, keep in mind that I am figuring out a lot as I go and guessing at how to make these conversions, so take care to do your own reasoning and calculating (and remember that I haven’t harvested yet! I have about a month to go….) and don’t just assume I know exactly what I’m doing.
At any rate, I ordered some barley seed online and got ready to plant. Unfortunately I had a hard time finding a place online that had in stock the varieties of barley seed that are used for beer brewing, and ended up getting some general-use barley strain. The economics of the whole project are a bit silly, when you do the arithmetic – I spent about 25 bucks (including shipping) ordering a minimum order of 5 pounds of seed, so that I could plant 2 pounds of that seed, so that I can hopefully grow about 10 pounds of grain, which would usually cost about $20 or less at the homebrew store (and it would be already malted and ready to use – see below). However, I look at this as research and development, not an immediate source of cost savings for my homebrewing operation.
When To Plant
In mid-December, according to the cooperative extension schedule, I planted one plot that’s about 15 feet by 5 feet, and another one a couple weeks later, delayed due to holiday travel. The first plot I barely did anything to the soil, just digging it up and turning it over, while the second I spent more time growing a deeper bed and conditioning it with compost and gardening soil and a little guano. So far I’ve noticed little difference between the two, other than what could be explained by the planting time difference.
The first plot was another first for me – the use of the easement land between sidewalk and street to grow food. I figured that there was no reason for that valuable growing space to go to waste when we’d used all the available room in our yard. The last time I was in Portland I noticed this is a kind of a trendy thing to do there, and in fact people are building fancy raised beds and boxes for their right-of-way gardens there. But in Tucson I actually get raised eyebrows and questions about it, as if I might be arrested by city landscaping cops for my daring digging. However, no gardening police have bothered me yet. True to schedule, by mid to late January both beds were sprouting luscious little green barley grass blades.
How Much & When to Water
The in-yard bed I had carefully equipped with a small and very DIY drip/spray irrigation system cobbled from used hoses and tubes. The front bed I had no way to arrange such a permanent set-up, since the sidewalk was in the way, so i’ve been just sort of flood-irrigating it with a hose i spool out when i need to. Watering grains is pretty different than vegetables, which you basically just water daily or more (especially in the summer) whenever they need it.
With grains, there’s a schedule of much less-frequent irrigations, roughly corresponding, here in southern Arizona, to once every 2 weeks, but with the amounts of water changing over the 6 months, from relatively little right after planting in December, increasing through February and March, peaking in late April, and then tapering off prior to harvest in late May. It’s difficult to know exactly what all the numbers and charts mean for my purposes in the cooperative extension papers – one problem is that they measure water in inches, as in inches of rain. but what does that mean in terms of turning on a garden hose?
I calculated for the size of my beds what an inch of water would be in gallons. (my beds are approximately 180 inches by 60 inches, so one inch is 180 x 60 x 1 = 10,800 cubic inches of water, which equals, thanks to Google, about 47 gallons of water. this means that at the maximum, largest irrigation, when the chart says .36 inches, i need 47 x .36 = about 17 gallons of water.
Then I took a gallon jug and timed how long it took to fill it from my garden hose (about 30 seconds) that would mean in about 8.5 minutes i’ve dispensed enough water for my plot – but, that assumes even distribution, and on my one plot I’m basically flood-irrigating at about 6 different spots, but knowing that i need to overwater timewise a bit at each point in order to hopefully soak that area enough. The other plot, with it’s drip irrigation and with my drippers set at about 5g/hr and there’s 6 of them so that’s 30 gallons an hour – so i need to turn it on for about 17 x 2 = 34 minutes.
Kind of an odd mix of back-of-the-envelope math and improvised hydrology, I know, but hopefully I will get roughly the right amount of moisture to those little barley plants. It seems like I’m getting somewhere in the ballpark, because they’re now not so little, the grain heads started busting out about a month ago, and now they are turning yellow and drying out.
My wheat-farming step-father said that the old timers used to know when it was time to harvest by picking one of the heads after they had all turned yellow, and tasting a few grains. if they’re still doughy, it’s not ready yet. The grains should be hard to the teeth. The coop extension tells me this will be in late May.
But, you may ask, what do I do then? I’m not really sure. Since it’s such a small area, I don’t think I need to go out and buy a scythe or anything. I’ll probably just cut off each grain head with some scissors. Then I know that the grains need to be separated from the chaff, as the old saying goes. One can do that by hand, I gather, by kind of shaking it around on a sheet or tarp, and the chaff theoretically just blows off.
Alternatively I have heard that the Tucson Community Food Bank has a grain threshing machine, so I may contact them about using that. But third – if I’m just using this grain to make beer, do I even need to separate the chaff out? Wouldn’t I be able to just malt, dry, roast, and mash the stuff anyway? Hmm.
Malting and Roasting
Speaking of which, what’s next after harvesting and threshing? There’s a step to grain-processing that is crucial to making fermented beverages that bread-bakers and other food-uses of grains don’t have to worry about. This is called “malting”.
To malt is to sprout the grains, and then stop the process before the sprouts actually start turning into seedlings. The idea is that when the seed is soaked in water and starts to sprout, the starches in the seed get converted into sugars for the new plant to use for energy and grow. That sugar is what we ferment into alcohol when we make beer (and whiskey, for that matter).
So that will be a whole other challenge for me, since, while I have malted a small amount of wheat berries before in the kitchen, which involves a mason jar, a bowl, and some cheesecloth, I’m not sure how I’ll do ten pounds at a time. We’ll see.
Of course even then we’re not quite ready to make beer. When you buy grains from the brewstore, there’s an exciting variety of different kinds of barley, all malted, but then dried and toasted, roasted, or baked in various tasty ways. I’ve experimented with this step, too, a bit.
The vast variety of barley you can get reflects hundreds of years of brewing history and many different variables, like temperature of the roast, duration, speed of warm up and cool down, moisture in the grain, and more, involving complicated furnaces and kilns and such. The simple roasts that the average homebrewer can do in the kitchen are called Amber and Brown, often still seen in some English ale recipes like Brown Ales and Porters.
You basically just put about 5 pounds of malted barley on a cookie sheet, and pop it in the oven starting at about 200° F. After 30-40 minutes, turn it up to 250 and then 20 minutes later, up again 50 degrees. Keep going till you get to 350. That’s amber roast. Keep going further till about 450 and you have brown roast.
Of course these are approximate instructions and you can play around and experiment with different colors and tastes and see what sort of beers result from using them. I’ve read that it helps to let the grain sit for a couple of weeks after roasting it before using it to brew. I’ve made a couple batches of Nut Brown Ale with small amounts of my home-roasted Amber and Brown barley, and the results have been delicious.
That concludes my little lab report. When I have a batch’s worth of grain and a batch’s worth of hops in a few months, I’ll brew it all up and let you know how it turns out. Thanks for reading!