Malt Renegades

Katie Taylor asks whether some craft brewers are turning back to heritage malts as their source of inspiration


The annual Heirloom and Terroir Barley and Malt Symposium welcomes enthusiasts, experts and radicals to hear about the past and future of grain. Elucidating the “real and imagined potential” of many near-forgotten varieties, the symposium discusses the scientific challenges of developing recipes using uncommon varieties. Essentially, using long-forgotten barley to bring historic recipes back to life. Hops might be the flashiest component of the modern beer scene, but there’s a malty base of constant reinvention right underneath our noses. Get to understand those humble grains, and the world of beer becomes that much richer.

The team at Cheshire Brewhouse in Congleton, led by Shane Swindells, returned to their brewery from the symposium in 2018 with the Heirloom Malt Brewing Award, for a Burton-On-Trent style English IPA brewed using 100% Chevallier. Excited by the “living history” that can be conjured up through brewing, Shane began delving into heritage recipes after working his way up from assistant-level at Molson Coors.

“Working in an old brewery, you feel that history,” he says. “I brew because I absolutely love beer. Beer is what made Britain great once upon a time; it’s vital to us. I see breweries trying to reinvent the wheel every day. I say, if it’s perfect, what’s wrong with a wooden wheel?”

Chevallier’s comeback

To explain what made Shane’s beer special, first we need to meet Chevallier. Chevallier barley was a Victorian workhorse of a malt. After an illustrious career throughout the 1800s, being used in nearly every beer style from traditional English IPAs to porters, it fell into obscurity around the 1920s for a number of reasons, mainly because growing it wasn’t as efficient as raising newer strains of barley. Crisp Maltings and a group of scientists from the John Innes Centre of plant and microbial science revived the grain in 2012, as part of their research into improving disease resistance in modern varieties. When Shane Swindells heard about Chevallier’s comeback, he wanted a piece of the action.

“I was making a heritage Burton-on-Trent pale and my faithful recreation had gone as far as I could go. This was my missing ingredient. They sent me away at first, but I wasn’t taking no for an answer. I said to them, ‘I want this barley, I’ll treat it like nobody else.’ They let me have it, and I brewed Govinda Chevallier Edition with it.”

Why did he want it? Dr David Griggs from Crisp Maltings isn’t surprised that he did. “Given its history and use in IPAs and porters, Chevallier is a great malt for using in heritage beer recipes. It brings rich malty flavours to beer which isn’t always the case with modern varieties. There is growing interest in the contribution that different varieties of barley can make to beer flavour,” he explains, adding: “Malt is becoming the new hops!”

The “T” Word

Up until the late 60s, in beer, locality had always been taken as a given. The beer you drank was brewed nearby, filling the streets with the cloying scent of boiling malt. The term ‘provenance’ might seem winey and overblown when used to describe beer, but in truth, Beer is one of those few special things we have in our part of the world that can boast a real sense of place. But what is it about beer that makes it local? Can its ingredients really give the flavour of an area? Is anyone actually using the word “terroir” correctly?

Steve Dunkley, owner and head brewer at Beer Nouveau says malt is vital to this perception of locality. “There is a sense of place, not so much from the provenance of the grain perhaps, but certainly from the flavours it gives and the emotions it evokes. A smoked malt smells completely different to a pale malt. Bere malt, kilned using its own husks, has a peaty aroma, Chevallier has an oaty, biscuity aroma. How we mash gives us complex or simple sugars, which in turn give us dry or sweet beers, and some malts like crystal give us a sweetness in the final beer regardless of the mash. Different malting styles even used to denote the region the beer was from, porter from the south, pale from the north, but we’ve long since passed that, and it’s unlikely there’s anyone alive that still remembers the distinctions.”

So when you’re choosing your beer, it pays to think beyond the style of hops that have been chosen to flavour it. What’s important to remember though, is that it’s the treatment of the malt you’ll be most interested in, as beer historian Ron Pattinson points out:

“A barley variety can give the idea of terroir, but most drinkers would never notice a difference in flavour. Whereas malt made a specific way can add distinctive flavour to a beer. That’s where the future of malt-led beer lies: rediscovered and new malting techniques. The surface has barely been scratched when it comes to malt.

“There’s nothing new in beer”

If you can produce a sense of place with your malt, then creating a sense of time is a very important part of that. Steve at Beer Nouveau has been using Chevallier for his Heritage Barrel Ageing Programme, but has gone one step further with a kilned variety of Chevallier developed just for Beer Nouveau. It’s called Chevallier-Nouveau and it came about like this.

“Will Longmate was working at Malting Box and had a kilning pattern for pale ale malt from the 1800s,” explains Steve. “He sorted it out with Crisp Maltings so they could do a malting collaboration – something we don’t think has been done before, or since. We’d always planned on getting these beers as accurate recreations as possible, and this meant we could take it that extra step.”

Steve’s fascination with heritage malts has surpassed the Victorian era. Creating Bygge Bere, a gruit made from spruce sprigs, meadowsweet and kveik yeast meant using only ingredients available to the Viking settlers on Orkney. This also meant sourcing a rare and ancient barley ancestor called ‘bere’, of which most is still grown on and milled in Orkney. Barony Mills is a watermill that mostly makes flour from bere, but also has a maltings on site and Steve got in touch to procure some for himself.

“They mill flour first, then use the husks from that as fuel in the kiln. The mill itself is water powered, so the only use they have for electricity is for lights! It’s an incredibly traditional way of making malt, and they’ve been doing it there since 1873. The difference that using these malts makes to a beer is unbelievable, the flavours are completely different to modern grains, or even heritage grains kilned to modern patterns.”

The drive to create something new in beer is relentless, but anyone who’s been in the game long enough will tell you that “new” does not exist. Beer has been brewed for a thousand years. There’s not much that hasn’t already been tried. If you want to get creative, brewers like Shane and Steve look to the past for inspiration instead.

Shane has been using heritage malt Plumage Archer – a predecessor of Maris Otter – in his Govinda Plumage Archer Edition and uses traditional hops Jester, Ernest and Early Keyworth to complete the picture. He reckons old IPAs must have needed their huge hop bills not for travel, but so they could throw their weight around and balance out the sweetness and heft of the malt. 

Unlike modern grains developed for higher yield and efficiency, barleys like Plumage Archer and Chevallier add distinctive, unfamiliar flavours that linger on long after you take a sip. Drinkers who’ve tasted beers made with heritage grains will lyricise about the scent of apricots and flavour of apricot jam dancing around in their mouths, as well as peaches and cream and honey. A judge for the Great Taste Awards, overcome and enamoured, actually called Shane’s Govinda Chevallier Edition “magnificent.” Despite being rather un-sexy – barley is, after all, a grain grown in rainy fields in places where there are no festoon lights or bao stalls – heritage malts aren’t boring, brown or subtle. In fact, they’re really quite extra.

Back at Beer Nouveau, Steve adds that malt can do more than simply add flavour and a satisfying mouthfeel. “There’s a huge amount we can do with malt that generally tends to get overlooked, but hitting that combination right evokes memories. A good bitter will make you remember the first time you had a good pint in the pub, or sneaked a sip of your dad’s drink. A stout will inevitably remind us of winter evenings by the fire.” 

All that emotional connection, all that history, all that skill and research, all that passion and British weather packed into thousands of unassuming little grains. The next time you pick up your pint, spare a thought for the unsung hero. If it wasn’t for your favourite brewery’s choice of barley, and for hundreds of years of tweaking, kilning and geeking, it’d be nowt.

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