The birth of civilisation took place during the “Agricultural revolution” at the end of the neolithic period in the area of the Middle East called the Fertile Crescent. The revolution was based largely upon cereal grains.
Back in school, we were taught that by raising grains, early villages were formed because growing grains allowed food to be stored and used in baking bread. Anthropologists are beginning to believe that many of the early grain farmers were more interested in using their crops to brew beer and that bread was more of a side line. On of the earliest cereal grains to be domesticated was barley, which is still the favoured grain for making beer.
Barley is still an important commercial crop. Most barley today is grown as livestock feed. Some barley is used for human food, but a good deal of it is malted for use in creating both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. We will discuss malting later because it is closely related to the life-cycle of the grain.
Commercially, barley is grown much like any other grain, a process which requires a good deal of land, machinery, and chemical fertilisers and weed killers. Weeds are the enemy of grain production. Weeds interfere with mechanical harvesting techniques, but they also compete with the grain for water and soil nutrients.
Those who are not involved with the hobby may not realise that home brewers and bakers consistently have superior results to their commercial counter-parts because the hobbyist has greater control over his ingredients. For the home brewer, an ultimate challenge is to grow your own ingredients. Obviously, we cannot match the economies of scale enjoyed by the commercial farmer, but a reasonable amount of grain can be grown in a surprisingly small space.
Many hobbyists report an average yield of five to fifteen pounds of barley from a 10 foot by 10 foot patch. Keep in mind that these are often results gained by brewers, not necessarily organic gardeners. An experienced gardener may have even better results thanks to better developed soil and techniques.
Like any gardening project, the first step is deciding what to grow. Although there are dozens of varieties of barley, the most important classifications are two-row and six-row. Six-row barleys, with six individual rows of kernels on each stalk, are higher in proteins. They are more often used as animal feeds, but the higher protein content may make them better for baking as well. With less protein, two row barley has more fermentable sugars. Most English beers are made from two row barley, however American style lagers often depend upon the high enzymatic properties of six-row barley.
Barley does remarkably well in rather marginal soils, but it does not appreciate an acidic soil. Sowing the grains by broadcasting is traditional, but some home brewers who have limited space and wish to experiment with different varieties of barely have success planting barley in rows spaced 6 inches apart. This technique may be preferable for raised beds. Barley is normally sown 60 to 90 pounds per acre, so half to ¾ pounds of seed for the 10 x 10 plot should be plenty.
As mentioned previously, weeds are the enemy. Weed eradication is another reason to consider sowing in rows. However, barley is a hardy grass and may out-compete the weeds on its own.
Harvest is usually 90 days after planting. The stalks will begin to turn golden and a peeled kernel will barely dent with the thumbnail. A grain sickle is the traditional harvesting tool, but a large knife or even a pair of garden shears should be able to handle a small patch of grain.
In an up coming post we will be taking a closer look at small and large scale grain harvesting and processing, as well as malting, sprouting for barley grass, and other grain options for the urban farmer.