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Barley Breeding and Development in the UK, an Historical Perspective

by Peter Brookes


Barley is the fundamental raw material of beer. The production of beer has a long history. It has been argued that the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages (particularly beer and wine) played an important role in the socioeconomic development of early man and was important in the emergence of hierarchically organised societies in Sumer and Egypt (Joffe, 1998). Further, beer and wine could be used as a means of nutrition, as a cheap source of calories and as a stimulant, promoting a feeling of well being (Hornsey, 2003). As urban societies developed water supplies were often polluted and it was realised that in this situation beer was a 'safe' drink. Unlike water it will not support the growth of pathogenic microorganisms because of the pH value of around 4. Of course there were downsides. The 'controllers' of developing societies did not want any problems related to the supply and distribution of food; subsistence was state controlled (Hornsey, 2003). The distribution of alcoholic drinks was thus a powerful means of creating loyalty in the labour forces engaged in the supply of food. But over consumption lead to alteration of consciousness and a consequent loss of performance of the individual or team. To gain optimum advantage the supply of alcohol had to be controlled and used with care!

Beer developed essentially in lands where the vine would not grow. Archaeological evidence suggests that in the period 10000 to 8000 BC seminomadic peoples were collecting wild barleys in the so-called Fertile Crescent in what is now known as the Middle East (Briggs, 1978). Greek writers ascribed the first cultivation of barley to the Egyptians. It was mentioned by Homer (c. 700 BC) in the Odyssey, 'with wheat and barley waive the golden fields'. This cultivation was presumed to be under the guidance of Osiris. Diodorus Siculus stated 'that wherever the vine was not found in Egypt Osiris taught the method of preparing a corn wine from grain, which when properly made was but little inferior in taste or smell to the wine made from the grape' (White, 1860). So this 'beer' became the natural substitute for wine in the countries where because of climate, the vine would not flourish. The original inhabitants of Saxony, Gaul, Britain, Denmark and parts of Spain made an infusion of germinated barley, which they allowed to ferment and then consumed as their ordinary drink. This drink was called Ceria by the Spanish, Cerevisa by the Franks and Gauls and Curmi by the Britons. All these names implied 'strong water'. Pliny (AD 23 to 79) wrote admiringly of this liquid and said that ' the people of Spain brew (note the word) this liquid so well that it will keep a good long time' (White, 1860). There also seems to be little doubt that the Greeks at the time of Archimedes understood how to produce a drink from corn, which they called 'barley wine' so suggesting again that the raw material was barley.

It was clear to these ancient civilisations that to produce a satisfactory drink required that the barley should be infused with water and that the product of this process was a sweet friable substance. This was, of course, what is now known as malt. The term 'malt' is probably of Anglo-Saxon origin meaning something that was 'malled' or beaten. In this context implying that 'malling' was necessary to allow water to extract and dissolve the essential properties of the grain. Again the Greeks ascribed the invention of malt to the Egyptians. The art of malting, the key to successful brewing, is thus one of the most ancient of processes. The art found its way from Egypt to Tyre and Sidon and thence to Carthage, Greece, Rome, Germany, Gaul, the Scandinavian countries and to Britain.

The process of malting is described in some detail by Isidorus and Orosius who wrote about AD 410: 'The Celtic nations steep their grain (barley) in water and make it germinate; they then dry and grind it; after which they put it into water or infuse it. The liquor is fermented, when it becomes warm, pleasant, strengthening, and intoxicating'. This is an astonishingly accurate description of events and would probably have been well received written in the early 19th century!


Early Events in Britain

It is probable that when Julius Caesar arrived on the coast of Kent in 55 BC that beer was already a fermented beverage known in Britannia (Hornsey, 2003). Caesar also noted that 'corn' was grown and that the climate was generally unsuitable for the growing of vines. Well before Julius Caesar, Britain was visited by Pytheas of Marseilles in 320 BC. He noted that grain was sown in the autumn, since the winters were not cold enough to damage growth. This gave the crop a good start in the spring, which was important because a long growing season was needed to achieve maturity of the grain at harvest. This slowness of growth was a result of the lack of warmth and sunshine not moisture! The precise nature of the grain is not certain, but Tacitus (born c. AD 55) noted that both wheat and barley were grown in northern Europe and used to make beer (Hornsey, 2003).

It is possible that the art of malting in Britannia was refined under the influence of the soldiers of Julius Caesar. Vinegar (diluted with water) and beer were common drinks of Roman soldiers on the march. This refinement resulted in the ancient Britons being able to make beer more readily and reduced their dependence on mead, which could only be made when honey was available in the summer months. It is therefore clear that in Roman Britain a type of barley was grown, malted and brewed into beer.

It is not so easy to precisely establish when before Roman Britain that barley was effectively cultivated. Barley was probably grown around 3000 BC in Britain, but it is by no means certain the growth of this barley was associated with malt and beer (Dineley and Dineley, 2000). This is beautifully analysed in some detail by Ian Hornsey and for more information this publication should be consulted (Hornsey, 2003). Cereal based residues have been identified on Neolithic pot fragments in Orkney and this could be interpreted as the remains of some kind of beer. But the interpretation is inevitably sketchy. There have been many detailed analyses of various residues from Bronze Age and Iron Age burial chambers that could indicate cereal based brewing activity. It has further been suggested that the following types of barley were available to the Iron Age farmer (Reynolds, 1995):

It has, however, also been suggested that whilst six-row barleys were common place by 2500 BC that two-row types were not introduced into northern Europe until the middle ages, perhaps from some middle eastern site discovered by the Crusaders (Briggs, 1978). On this basis it seems not surprisingly that very little in detail is known about the precise nature of the barley grown in Bronze Age and Iron Age agriculture. The conclusion must be that barley is probably indigenous to Egypt and that it was certainly well established in Britain at the time of Caesar's visit. This provides the context in which to study the evolution of the modern variety and how it has been adapted to industrial brewing.


Origin and classification of barleys

The barley plant is an herbaceous annual and belongs to the Gramineae, the family of grasses. A detailed discussion of the botany of the plant is not within the scope of this paper (for this see Briggs, 1978). However, importantly, barleys can be recognised as six-rowed in which the ear carries six rows of grains or two-rowed where the ear carries two rows of grains as a result of infertility of the lateral spikelets which do not fully develop in to grains in the ear (Briggs, 1978). Two-rowed barleys tend to have plumper grains than six-rowed barleys. The Gramineae family is of major importance because it includes the cereal species, which yield food grains such as wheat, barley, rye, oats, rice maize, millet and sorghum as well as other important plants including bamboo, sugar cane and the pasture grasses (Briggs, 1981). Cultivated barleys and various wild barleys are now classified in the genus Hordeum. Over the years, in common with classification of other genera, there has been a great deal of confusion and disagreement between taxonomists on the precise differences between species in the genus. This has made it difficult for the barley breeder, agronomist and maltster who essentially want to know whether a particular plant or grain sample is of the desired variety, let alone species!

All cultivated barleys and a group of wild barleys (Hordeum spontaneum and possibly H.agriocrithon) actually belong to one species and should have one specific name (Briggs, 1998). But misleadingly some varieties have been given specific Latin binomial names in reference classification systems. This has resulted in the general recognition of four groups of common barleys that have been given common, but incorrect binomial names:

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Each of these groups is composed of numerous varieties and in practical terms it is the properties of these varieties that are important in malting and brewing.

There has been much disagreement over the origins of cultivated barleys (Harlan, 1968). Did two-rowed and six-rowed barleys arise separately or from common stock? This question receives attention from time to time and is answered in different ways. On balance the evidence would seem to favour a single origin from the two-rowed wild spontaneum group. This is supported by the current distribution of wild barley (H. spontaneum) in the arc from Egypt through Israel, Syria and Lebanon and then southeastwards to Iraq and Iran (the ancient fertile crescent). Further, finds from Egypt of about 5000 BC show the presence of distichon and deficiens forms of barley in the presence of six-rowed forms and spontaneum types (Briggs, 1978). In Mesopotamia, by 5000 BC a six-rowed barley was being grown and six-rowed types predominated in the spread of barley to the Indus valley and thence to China and Japan and finally to Europe (see above). It seems that groups of types, 'species', were characteristic of particular areas and that these groups formed the basis of exchange that resulted in the ultimate diversification of the species (Vavilov, 1951). At this stage the strict development of varieties was not taking place, but barleys were being selected by climate and cultivation resulting in gradual improvement in agricultural properties.


Barley Improvement

Barley improvement is dependent on the selection of superior strains from amongst a range of types. Efforts to improve barley have occurred since its early cultivation (Beaven, 1947). Growers (and subsequently farmers) saved seed from the best plants and experimented with seed received from any source. This continuous selection was practised from the ancient times discussed above and accounted for the many barley types evolving from the wild Hordeum spontaneum. Systematic attempts at improvement are much more recent. These can be traced in Europe to the founding of the Plant Breeding Station of Svalöf, Sweden in 1866 and the work of the English maltster E.S. Beaven (Beaven,1947). Beaven was greatly assisted in his work by the Guinness brewer, Gossett, an amateur statistician who used the pseudonym, 'Student'. Gosset through the establishment of his 't' test (to test the significant difference between the mean values of two sets of data) was able to demonstrate to Beaven which of his barley selections were significantly improved. This gave great impetus to Beaven's work and the development of improved varieties in the UK.

In the UK in the 19th century the barley grown consisted of 'land races', which had been selected to perform well in the regions in which they were grown (Fenwick, 1998). The barleys were mainly two-rowed spring sown types. Most of the barleys had weak straw such as Scotch Common, but this variety was good for malting and demonstrated low dormancy and rapid germination. Another common land race at this time was the six-rowed Bere that was grown in upland areas mainly for animal feeding. Increasingly grain was saved from the better plants and was multiplied. In this way the named variety emerged. Such a variety was Chevallier, which was selected in 1824 and dominated the English crop for many years. Eventually selecting from existing crops stops being beneficial because successive generations become genetically more uniform. More variability must be introduced by crossing promising parental lines and then selecting superior lines from the progeny (Briggs, 1998).

The general objectives of barley breeders can be summarised as (Briggs, 1998):

To these general objectives can be added more specific requirements of the maltster, brewer and distiller (for a general discussion of malting to provide background to this discussion see Briggs, 1998):

To provide all these characteristics in a variety of barley is a formidable and laborious task!

Classically, a breeder artificially crosspollinates plants using parents that have qualities that it is hoped to combine in the offspring. Selections are then made on the following, self-fertilised generations. Twelve generations are needed before a variety is ready to be released. To save time seed can be taken to an opposite hemisphere to gain two harvests in the year. Typically grain can be grown in the UK and New Zealand to achieve this purpose. At each successive generation the individual plants are more nearly genetically uniform (homozygous). Plant breeding is now a global business and breeders have tens of thousands of barley lines to use as parents in a breeding programme. Success can also be achieved by mutation breeding. Genetic changes can be induced by chemical or radiation treatments. A famous variety produced in this way (by γ rays) was Golden Promise. In the last few years genetic manipulation by introducing genes from other species has become possible. New varieties of maize have been produced in this way. For barley, genes controlling the production of say heat stable β− glucanase enzymes could be introduced to be expressed in the germinating grain. At the present time there is no public acceptability of this type of work and there are no commercially available genetically modified barley varieties used in malting. It seems likely in the foreseeable future that progress will continue to be made by classic plant breeding techniques.

In the UK in common with other developed countries the introduction of new varieties is controlled to the mutual benefit of farmers and users. The two organisations primarily involved in this are the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) and the Home Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA). In Scotland the situation is analogous, but The Scottish Colleges of Agriculture (SCA) replace the NIAB. New varieties must be distinct, uniform and stable (so called DUS characteristics) before they can be included on National Lists and Recommended Lists (see later) available to farmers. Essentially, varieties cannot be grown unless included on the National List or under EU auspices on the European Common Catalogue. This is a safeguard to the farmer that he is buying seed, which is distinct and stable. When seed is being multiplied, therefore, strict precautions must be taken to avoid cross-pollination or admixture of other varieties. This emphasis in breeding programmes on genetic uniformity benefits the maltster, and hence the brewer and distiller, in that each grain in a batch is as uniform as possible and so responds predictably to defined processing.


Variety Development

In the 19th century land races were progressively replaced by selected lines and reselections. Goldthorpe and Spratt and Archer replaced Chevallier. Between 1918 and 1939 hybrid selections began to be made. Spratt and Archer were crossed to produce Spratt-Archer and a Scandinavian variety, Plumage, was introduced and crossed to provide Plumage-Archer. Both these hybrid varieties had a similar yield and had good malting quality. The first NIAB Recommended List was issued in 1930 and these varieties were listed as being winter barley (sown in the autumn), but were in fact true spring varieties that were tolerant of winter conditions (Fenwick, 1998). Plumage-Archer and Spratt-Archer held 80% of the total barley acreage by 1940. During the war of 1939 to 1945 it was imperative that yields should be improved. To this purpose the short strawed Danish variety Kenia was introduced which, however had inferior malting quality to Spratt-Archer and Plumage-Archer. A major advance was the breeding in 1943 of Pioneer by Bell at the Plant Breeding institute (PBI) in Cambridge from a cross between Kenia and Tshermarks an Austrian variety. This gave to the UK (really to England) the first true winter variety. Release of varieties was interrupted during the war, but Bell's work continued with the release of the variety Proctor in 1952. This was from a cross between Plumage-Archer and Kenia and was a significant improvement in both yield and malting quality. Proctor turned out to be an outstanding variety and from 1953 to 1960 dominated the crop. In the late 1950s it took 70% of the acreage and was on the NIAB Recommended List until 1978.

A significant change to this stable varietal supply took place in 1964 with the Plant Varieties and Seeds Act (Brookes, 1986). As a result of this Act plant breeders were able to obtain royalties on the sale of seed and were thus able to recoup some of the costs of their breeding programmes. A massive impulse to variety development was thus given. In 1965 Maris Otter, also bred in Cambridge was introduced from a cross between Pioneer and Proctor. This winter variety had excellent malting quality, was dominant in the 1970s and remained on the NIAB Recommended List until 1989. It is now outclassed in yield, but is still grown mostly on contract and is prepared into malt for some traditional brewers who are prepared to pay a premium for the malt.

As a result of the twelve-year life cycle in variety development a whole series of varieties began to appear from 1976. Most of these varieties were essentially high yielding spring types with variable malting quality, almost always inferior to Proctor and Maris Otter. Examples were Wing, Ark Royal and Julia (of more later!). In 1980 a new standard was set with the introduction of Triumph, a German spring variety. This had high malting quality, good disease resistance and a yield about 10% greater than Ark Royal. It remained on the Recommended List until 1994 and dominated the spring acreage in Northern Europe. Gradually its resistance to mildew declined and it was outclassed by varieties such as Blenheim, Prisma and Alexis.

The cool temperate oceanic climate of Britain allowed the successful growing of winter barleys in contrast to mainland Europe where in the more severe winters spring varieties dominated. Breeders thus sought more economic replacements for Maris Otter. In 1985 the variety Halcyon was introduce followed by Pipkin in 1986. These varieties gave a 20% yield improvement over Maris Otter and consequently in normal market circumstances could be bought at lower prices. Halcyon (Warboys x Maris Otter) was bred at PBI in Cambridge and was on the Recommended List until 2000. It was by then outclassed by higher yielding varieties giving at least equivalent malting quality. This again resulted in the supporters of Halcyon having to pay a premium for its continued growth.

It had been the assumed wisdom at this time that feed barleys had higher yields than malting types. This was at least a part explanation for the price premium paid for malting varieties. A significant change occurred in 1989 when the winter variety, Puffin was first listed. This variety was claimed to be 'dual-purpose' in that it combined the yield of feed varieties with the malting quality of the best malting types (Fenwick, 1998). The variety was not entirely successful and was unpopular with some brewers. Nevertheless Puffin demonstrated that there was no genetical reason why yield and malting quality could not be combined in one variety. To some extent this had already been shown in the spring barley, Triumph. This has formed the basis of the breeding programmes of the last 15 years and breeders can now successfully combine yield and malting quality such that certainly all new spring varieties are malting types.

There is clearly money to be made for the breeder and the grower in the introduction of new varieties. The maltster and his customers would probably want stable supply with minimal change once satisfactory varieties are in use. These circumstances are not likely to return. This has stimulated maltsters, brewers and distillers to instigate rigorous testing systems to ensure that the properties of all new varieties are thoroughly understood before such varieties receive recommendation and approval.


Evolution of Testing Systems

The position of stable variety supply ended with the varieties being produced as a result of the granting of plant breeders' rights. From 1950 until the early 1970s brewers were using malt from Proctor or Maris Otter barley with little difficulty. There was no reason to suppose that there would be problems when new varieties were introduced. In the early 1970s the spring barley variety, Julia became widely grown offering considerably improved yield to the farmer over Proctor. It was available to maltsters at lower prices and it was bought, malted and sold to brewers. The barley and the malt made from it satisfied all the normal quality criteria of the time (Brookes, 1986; Briggs, 1998). However, when brewed considerable difficulties were experienced in separating the wort from the mash and achieving satisfactory levels of brewhouse extract despite that extract being indicated by standard laboratory analysis. The Barley Committee of the then Institute of Brewing (IOB, now IBD, The Institute of Brewing and Distilling) was alerted as news of brewing problems came from around the country. It was decided that a much more rigorous system for testing new varieties was needed so as to avoid another 'Julia' problem. Under the Chairmanship of Ron Hall of Allied Breweries (what's left of it is now part of Carlsberg) a working party was set up to instigate a new procedure. The original members of the working party were: Trevor Wainwright from BIRF (now BRi), Keith Stowell from ABM (now long absorbed into Greencore), Stanley Hall from John Smith's (now part of Scottish Courage), Bill Fiddian from NIAB and Peter Brookes, also of Allied Breweries. The fundamentals of this system are still in place today. A group of 'collaborators' was set up from across the whole country to carry out extensive micro-malting of new varieties. This was followed by, where possible, pilot malting and brewing and ultimately full scale brewing trials. The object was to 'approve' for the Institute of Brewing those varieties already 'recommended', by the NIAB. Indeed it was essential that the IOB system must dovetail perfectly with the National and Recommended Lists. The variety would then be awarded an *, signifying brewing approval. The system has received considerable refinement since the 1970s and suffice it to say that no other Julia has appeared! As a matter of interest Julia when malted compared to Proctor produced significantly less endo barley β−glucanase enzyme and had an endosperm structure resistant to glucanolytic attack that resulted in the widely observed brewhouse problems (Brookes, 1975; Palmer, 1983). This could be corrected to some extent by malting Julia at much higher moisture levels (Brookes, 1975).


The Current Testing System

Breeders enter new varieties to National List trials. They are initially tested at six trial sites throughout the UK over two years. The objective is to assess yield potential, field characteristics, disease resistance and grain quality. Results are compared to existing commercial varieties. After two years, if no weaknesses have emerged, the variety is added to the National List. A variety must be on the National List to be legally sold in the UK (Fenwick, 1998). The number of varieties entered to trials varies each year, but typically breeders will withdraw about half of those entered after the first year. They will take the view that they are not likely to be commercially successful. The better varieties will then proceed to Recommended List trials. The varieties are then grown at a higher number of trial sites than for the National List in comparison with varieties on the existing Recommended List. After three years of these trials varieties are considered for inclusion on the Recommended List. This will only take place if the variety is as good as or better than the best comparable variety already on the list. The system is thus one of continuous improvement. The Recommended List is an important document and is much used by farmers. It was formally published by the NIAB. The variety trial work was funded by the HGCA and it was believed that greater credence would be given to the list if it were published directly by HGCA rather than by NIAB. This is now the case. Varieties will enter the system probably at F8 in their development progression from F1 (first filial generation) to full commercial production at F12. There are thus five years for maltsters, brewers and distillers to become involved in the system. The amount of seed available will progressively increase at each generation.

The HGCA is keen that malting quality is fully assessed so that comprehensive information is available to the farmer on marketable quality as well as agronomic characteristics. Indeed workers at NIAB were originally much involved in micromalting evaluation at NL1 and NL2 stages in barley development and their work was integrated into the IOB system by the original working party. Now at NL1 and NL2 (F8 and F9) micromalting is carried out by working parties (derived form the original collaborators) in Scotland and England as well as by NIAB. The work of these groups in Scotland and England continues alongside Recommended List trials using seed from the sites of the trials. At RL1 (F10) there should be enough grain for pilot malting and brewing and Brewing Research International (BRi) now carries this out. At RL2 there should be enough seed for commercial trials. The original system involved the award of a provisional * and then a full * as the results of the trials emerged. This was under the auspices of the Barley Committee and often involved lively debate.

The planning and coordination of these trials was very time consuming and difficult. Whilst the micro-malting was fairly straightforward the full scale trials required considerable persuasion to get brewers involved. This has become increasingly difficult, as the numbers of people available in the industry to coordinate such work has diminished. Further, the IBD no longer has full time staff available for the work. The risk was that the system would fall apart with potential adverse consequences. Changes had to be made whilst retaining the original objectives of the IOB Barley Committee. The system is now administered by the Maltsters' Association of Great Britain (MAGB) with technical support from the IBD. The name IOB is retained to provide continuity and is essentially used as a 'brand'. The HGCA publishes the Recommended List that incorporates the information gained from malting and brewing trials. The farmer and the user therefore has access to agronomic and grain quality data. The Recommended List is now a very comprehensive document. It has sections on market options and grain quality; yield, agronomy and disease resistance and supplementary data. The data on yield is expressed in tonnes/ha against controls grown under the same conditions. The controls will be a group of varieties currently on the list. The yield data is expressed on a regional basis with consideration being given to performance in eastern (dry), western (wet), and northern conditions. Over the years yields have generally improved (Table 1) and this trend continues. This is generally to the benefit of farmer and user in increasing income to the farmer and lowering the potential premium paid by the user. It can be seen from Table 1 that the buyer of Maris Otter barley can, on the basis of yield, expect to pay a premium for it to be grown. Disease resistance characteristics of the varieties are expressed on a 1-9 scale with a higher figure indicating greater resistance (HGCA, 2005).

Table 1: Comparison of Yields of Different Barley Varieties

The information was collected from Briggs (1978 and 1998) and from NIAB and HGCA. This data is for basic comparison only to show the general improvement in agricultural yield obtained, as new varieties have been grown. These results are taken from different sites. Yields are greatly affected by the weather and by agricultural practice. Nevertheless an increase of almost 250% can be seen in typical yields over the last 100 years. The yield shown for Maris Otter is probably on the high side of that routinely found. In some years yields were in the order of 3.70 tonnes/ha.

The control yield for winter varieties in the 2005 HGCA Recommended List was 8.20 tonnes/ha and for spring varieties was 6.80 tonnes/ha.

Variety Winter or Spring Sown Year Yield (tonnes/ha)
Archer Spring 1906 2.95
Spratt-Archer Spring 1955 3.66
Proctor Spring 1955 4.20
Maris Otter Winter 1985 4.94
Halcyon Winter 1996 7.30
Pearl Winter 2004 8.04
Flagon Winter 2004 8.36
Optic Spring 2004 6.73
Cocktail Spring 2004 7.21

In the original system malting grade was based on hot water extract produced by the barley under standard malting conditions in NIAB micro-malting trials. Conditions were highly standardised and statistically based but were not intended to be commercial. Barleys were rated for extract on a 1 to 9 scale with the best barleys having a 9 grade. In practice brewers tended to be interested only in grade 9 barleys. The grade was published in the NIAB list along with the status of the 'asterisk'. The * was first provisionally awarded and then, after further trials normally involving full scale brewing, was fully awarded. In the 'new' HGCA Recommended List a different system has been adopted. In the section of the List on market options and grain quality it is indicated whether the variety has provisional or full IOB approval for brewing or distilling use. The provisional approval can be awarded in two phases as the test results emerge viz. provisional approval 1 and provisional approval 2. For full approval it is normally essential for commercial malting and brewing trials to have taken place and for the variety to be in commercial use. This could be achieved at the F11 stage. Further, a variety that has not achieved full approval within two years of gaining provisional approval 2 will be removed from the list. Up to the 2005 List there was an IOB approval related to geographic area. This has now been dropped and for the 2006 harvest varieties are approved on their suitability for brewing or distilling use (Butterworth, 2005). The IOB List for harvest 2006 is shown in Table 2. The 1-9 malting grade scale has also been replaced. In the section of the List on supplementary data actual hot water extract values for the varieties in litre0/kg are quoted. These can be compared and those varieties giving the highest values are likely to be preferred by users.

Table 2: Institute of Brewing Approved List of Barleys for Harvest 2006

Winter Varieties - Brewing
Pearl - Full Approval
Fanfare - Full approval
Flagon - Provisional Approval 2
Winter Varieties - Distilling
No varieties approved for use
Spring Varieties - Brewing
Optic - Full Approval
Cellar - Full Approval
Cocktail - Full Approval
Chalice - Full approval
Decanter - Full Approval
Westminster - Provisional Approval 1
NFC Tipple - Provisional Approval 1
Spring Varieties - Distilling
Optic - Full Approval
Cocktail - Full Approval
Decanter - Full Approval
Troon - Full Approval
Westminster - Provisional Approval 1
Oxbridge - Provisional Approval 1

From this discussion it can be seen that the testing system for new barley varieties in the UK is highly developed. There is now much easily obtained information available to breeders, farmers, maltsters, brewers and distillers. This is a great aid to communication and should result in the needs of the primary producer (farmer) and the end user (brewer and distiller) being made absolutely clear to the breeder. In this the maltster has a key role to play in providing the knowledgeable interface between supplier and customer. We are extremely fortunate that as the result of hard work over the last 35 years the system works and should continue to do so.


The Way Ahead

It is likely that the barley crop will continue to be 'improved'. Improvers (the breeders) will try to achieve a more valuable crop in terms of increased yields and a more desirable product. It is in their interest to progressively introduce new varieties to gain royalty payments from the sale of seed and not to allow their catalogue of varieties to become outclassed. The introduction and marketing of new varieties is highly competitive and is global business. Brewers and distillers would not wish to see so much change. It is difficult to constantly optimise processes for new varieties. This, however, is inevitable and in this situation it is vital that their requirements are communicated effectively to breeders so that the right improvements are built into breeding programmes. The current testing system should protect against any poor quality varieties coming through so continuous improvement should be achieved.

In barleys for brewing and distilling it seems probable in the foreseeable future that breeders will continue to progress using well proven techniques. The major improvements of the last 200 years were first obtained by selecting outstanding lines from the indigenous land races. The superior selected lines were then crossed, often in England, with stiff strawed Scandinavian varieties. Advances now come from crossing varieties from all over the world. These well tried hybridisation techniques will continue. There is no current public appetite for genetically modified food. This is partly a result of poor education and public understanding of science. Opportunities should be taken by Governments to correct this and until this situation changes there is not a commercial basis for barley variety improvement using any form of gene manipulation by molecular biological techniques.

Notwithstanding the above, breeders have made great progress in improving grain malting quality. In the UK hot water extracts of malt before 1939 were around 288 litre0/kg. This yield was increased with the introduction of Proctor to around 301 litre0/kg and now values of 310 litre0/kg and above are achievable. Similar improvements for distillers in terms of spirit yield (crudely the amount of ethanol produced from a tonne of malt) have been made. Consequently brewers' and distillers' processes have been made more efficient by these improvements. Improvements in extract and spirit yield will probably continue although this may not be indefinite. The improvements heretofore have been achieved by a reduction of the husk and pericarp content, parts of the grain that do not yield soluble extract (Briggs, 1998). This reduction cannot probably continue without detriment to the agronomic properties of the barley. Other improvements have focussed on removing undesirable processing characteristics of the barley. One such example is the development of varieties that are free of anthocyanogens -a class of polyphenolic compounds that can give rise to haze in beer. This has been achieved by work in the Carlsberg laboratories in Copenhagen in the 1970s. This was by inducing mutations such that the anthocyanogen producing genes were ineffective. It must be stressed that this was not by genetic transformation (Jende-Strid, 1997). Sound beers have been brewed from anthocyanogen free malts with long shelf lives, free of haze. However, the truly commercially acceptable anthocyanogen free variety remains to be developed. Available varieties usually have other agronomic or quality characteristics that are not satisfactory. The work continues.

Demand for malting barley in the UK (around 2 million tonnes annually) is static, but world production of beer continues to rise with considerable growth being experienced in China, parts of Eastern Europe and South America. This will increase world malting barley demand and provide the stimulus for barley breeding programmes to continue. Brewers and distillers in the UK should continue to benefit from this situation. And UK maltsters will continue to have export opportunities with improving varieties of barley with which to make their malt.



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