Let’s say beer is a rock band. Hops are the loud front man that gets all the attention. The ingredient that everyone talks about and no one can ignore. Yeast is the rowdy, wily, drummer who’s hard to control but sets the tone for what’s going on, without him you have nothing. Barley is the bass player. It’s the backbone and deep thread that runs through it all. Barley is the John Paul Jones, the Flea, the Bootsy Collins. Barley drives the van, and books the shows and rarely gets the credit deserved.
I rode around Wyoming and Idaho with Let’s Grab A Beer for a Barley Field Trip to learn more about barley, see where it grows and to make it the star of the show, even if just for a few days.
So, what does barley do in beer? Barley gives you a little sugar, which is more important than you realize and allows two other main players to do their jobs. Hops are loud and awesome with their kick-you-in-the-teeth bitterness, but barley provides the sugar that balances that bitterness into something you actually want to keep drinking. The sugar in barley is also what yeast feeds off of in order to do it’s job. Without barley and the sugar it gives off, the yeast would die and the beer would have no alcohol in it. Barley is also nearly 100% responsible for the color of your beer. A light-colored beer uses barley that was very lightly roasted, whereas that blacker-than-your-ex-wife’s heart stout is made with barley that has been roasted to a deep, dark brown.
So, how does it work? Barley, right from the field, doesn’t have any developed sugars yet. Throw it into your beer-makin’ and you’ll be outta luck. It first has to sprout (also called germinate, or chit), and that takes a little water. Once it starts to sprout, you have to stop that chit right away. This is a delicate process, too much or too little and it’s no good. It’s stopped with heat more than 90°F. From there, it can be roasted for additional flavors or colors, but it can also be used right away.
Barley can also be eaten. It’s a versatile little sucker, something you may not have thought a lot about before now. I made a dessert using barley and beer, an homage to the sweetness it brings to the beer in your glass. I also toasted the grain before using it, a nod to the heat used in the malting process. It gives off a nice nuttiness in the topping. I hope you’re able to see how one ingredient can offer a substantial range of flavors depending on how it’s treated. From beer to dessert, this grain can do so much.
Brown Sugar Barley and Belgian Ale Peach Skillet Crisp
- 1 tablespoon (14g) unsalted butter
- ¼ cup (53g) pearled barley
- 1 cup (120g) all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon (6g) salt
- 2/3 cup (120g) brown sugar, packed
- ½ cup (113g) chilled, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
- 2 tablespoons (28g) unsalted butter
- 2.5 lbs yellow peaches, (about 6 large) sliced
- ½ cup (90g) brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon (3g) salt
- 1/3 cup (78mL) Belgian ale (or brown ale)
- Vanilla ice cream for serving, optional
- Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet. Add the barley, cooking until the barley is toasted and golden brown (it should smell nutty). Remove barley from heat. Add to a small bowl and chill until ready to use (barley must be cold before it’s used in the topping or it will melt the butter and prevent the topping from cooking properly).
- Make the filling while the barley cools. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, peaches, brown sugar and salt to the same skillet you used to toast the barley. Bring to medium-high heat, stirring until the butter is melted and the brown sugar is well combined with the peaches. Add the beer and bring to a strong simmer. Simmer until the liquid in the pan starts to thicken and become syrupy, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Preheat the oven to 425°F.
- In a food processor add the toasted and cooled barley, flour, salt and brown sugar. Process on high until the barley starts to break up, but some chunks still remain.
- Add the butter and pulse until just combined. Add the topping to the top of the skillet in small handfuls until the top is mostly covered. Bake at 425°F until the top is golden brown, about 18-20 minutes. Serve warm, topped with ice cream if desired.
Goose Island Sophie is easy to find and will work well in this recipe.
Let’s Grab A Beer sponsored this post. They have a mission to educate the public and raise the consumer knowledge base about beer. All ideas, words, recipes, photos and opinions are my own.