(Hordeum vulgare – Family Gramineae)
The name ‘barley’ is derived from the Old English ‘bære’, which survives in Scotland as ‘bere’. The ‘ly’ was added to turn it into an adjective and the eventual common term of “barley”. Barley is thought to have originated before 8000 BCE as a wild grass (H. spontaneum) in the dry lands of southwest Asia, where wild strains can still be found, and now classed in the same species as the cultivated type (H. vulgare). Remains of what was once the wild barley have also been found in North Africa, Asia Minor, and temperate zones of Asia as far east as Afghanistan. Recent research shows that it may have had two centers of origin. One in the highlands of Ethiopia and the other in southeast Asia. The site at Tell Mureybat, Syria, dates from about 8000 BCE, where a considerable store of the wild grain was found, including wheat as well as barley that was evidentally gathered rather than cultivated. Although many ancient ruins have displayed both barley and wheat, it is barley that is more abundant and found in more places; therefore, it was likely to have been cultivated earlier than wheat.
By 5000 BCE, barley was known to have been cultivated in Egypt, and much later in the Mesopotamian region. As far back as 3500 BCE, the Sumerians used barley as a basis for both a measuring and a monetary system. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi mentions the grain as a means of simple monetary exchange. This versatile grain was not only used as food and as a means of barter; but, commonly known “barley corn”, it was once a standard measure of length. In the early 14th century, the House of Tudor issued a royal decree that stated: “All metric units be standardized as one inch being equal to three grains of barleycorn, laid end to end”. The same decree also designated the running foot to equal thirty-nine barleycorns and the linear yard to equal 117 barleycorns. This remained the basis of all metric calibration in Great Britain and in America for the next 400 years. In 1888, when the shoe industry in the US was formally consolidated in Massachusetts, a press release announced that the largest regularly manufactured shoe size (13) would be thirty-nine barleycorns.
By 2000 BCE, barley was being cultivated in most of Europe and in China. In the writings from ancient China (c. 2800 BCE), the grain is mentioned as one of the five most sacred cultivated crops (rice, millet, soybeans, and wheat were the other four). It was the major grain of the Greeks and an important part of the diet of the Romans, Etruscans, Phoenicians, and Carthaginians. Barley was also known to the Stone Age Neolithic lake dwellers of Switzerland and was a staple grain in Israel and the European continent well into the 16th century. Much of the world still uses large amounts of the grain.
A feature of a wild plant is the ability to propogate itself. Wild barley, when it becomes mature, falls to the ground. Cultivation had to breed this out in order for seeds not to be lost. Therefore, cultivated grains bear seeds which are firmly attached and depend on cultivation for its survival. Barley is extremely adaptable climate-wise, and can be grown in totally different areas as those found in northern Norway to those of central India. Canada, France, Turkey, India, and the US are all major growers today. After barley is harvested, the grain is left to germinate, a natural chemical process during which complex carbohydrates in the grain change into sugar. At this point, the grain is now called malted barley and is used as the base for several alcoholic beverages, including beer and whiskey. When called “the most important crop of early civilizations”, barley clearly is no longer thought of as such since about one half of the crop grown in the US goes to the brewing industry, while most of the rest goes to fattening animals.
The Spanish introduced barley to South America in the mid 1500s. Colonists took it to the southwestern US in the early 1600s; and English and Dutch settlers took European varieties to the eastern areas of the US. Throughout much of Europe and the Near East, from prehistoric times and well into the 16th century, barley flour was used in making bread. Although mainly barley, the flour was also mixed with varying amounts of wheat, rye, or pea flour. It is believed that barley toppled in its status as wheat, with its high gluten content, became more popular in bread making. Barley contains significantly less gluten, and people wanted the lighter bread that is produced with wheat. Despite having a better flavour, barley breads do not have as much gluten, therefore producing a bread that is denser and coarser in texture, as well as having a darker colour. Also, barley breads stale more quickly because they lack the water-retaining powers of the gluten network in wheat or the natural gums in rye. However, the ancient Egyptians did not follow the rest of the world in abandoning barley, and, there, it remained a staple grain.
Barley contains calcium, iron, a little fat, pectin (a soluble food fiber), complex carbohydrates (starch), and protein; but it is deficient in lysine. In 1967, Swedish researchers found that, out of 15,000 seed samples, only one (Hiproly) was found to have a high lysine content. Hiproly was a naked variety from Ethiopia found to have 20-30% more lysine in its protein content than other barleys. However, the Hiproly seeds appeared smaller and more shrivelled than other types, so attempts began to crossbreed it with other varieties to improve the protein quality of the grain.
Barley kernels are protected by three layers: two inedible husks that harbour the germ or embryo of the plant and another delicate covering known as the “aleurone”, which shields the endosperm containing the starch. Starch consists of molecules of amylose and amylopectin. When barley is cooked in water, its starch granules absorb water molecules, swell, and soften. When the temperature of the liquid reaches about 140°F, the amylose and amylopectin molecules inside the granules relax and unfold, breaking some of their internal bonds between atoms on the same molecule. This forms new bonds between atoms on different molecules. The result is a network that traps and holds water molecules; and, as the starch granules swell, the barley becomes soft and bulky. If it continues to cook, the starch granules will rupture, releasing some of the amylose and amylopectin molecules inside. These molecules will attract and immobilize some of the water molecules in the liquid. This is the reason that a little barley added to soup or stew will make the dish thicker. The B vitamins in the barley are water-soluble and can be saved by serving the barley with the water in which it was cooked.
Barley is known to soothe inflamed stomach and intestinal membranes, and is believed to help reduce tumors and edema. It can be used to alleviate painful urination and act as a mild laxative. Sprouted barley is even more nutritious, aiding indigestion, reducing abdominal bloating, and acting as a strong blood purifier. Barley grass is rich in chlorophyll, Vitamin A, and enzymes, making it easier to digest than the grain itself. It also contains anti-inflammatory properties in the form of the antioxidant enzyme SOD and mucopolysaccharides. Ancient Greek athletes are known to have consumed a barley mush before competitions because it was easily digested; and, at the Eleusinian games, winners were awarded sacks of barley. Roman gladiators were fed on it and became known as ‘hordearii’, barley men. During the Middle Ages, European peasants ate barley and rye bread since wheat was restricted to the nobility.
There are more than 150 varieties of barley grown commercially in the US and Canada. The USDA lists more than 1,700 varieties grown throughout the world. All varieties fall into the following basic categories:
1) Hulled: have the husk which adheres to the kernel after threshing.
2) Naked: have husks that are loose and easily removed during threshing. Both the naked and the hulled types are extensively cultivated in Southeast Asia.
3) Two vs. Six Rows: are based on the arrangement of the grains in the ear. Hulled types are classed as two-row or six-row. The two-row types are found mainly in Europe, parts of Australia, and in the western US. The six-row kinds are more adaptable to varied environmental conditions, are higher yielding, and preferred by the malt industry. They are also more common in India and the Middle East. Malted barley can be used for livestock feed, but feed varieties cannot be used for malting purposes.
4) Spring and winter varieties.
5) Awned, awnless, or hooded lemmas: have reduced husks and commonly grown in the east.
6) Black, purple, or white kernelled.
Barley Grains and Products:
– Whole hulled barley is the natural grain with only the outermost chaff or hull removed.
– Unhulled brown barley requires soaking and a lengthy cooking time, and is often used for hot cereal or for sprouting.
– Pot or Scotch barley is the remaining kernel after three pearlings.
– Pearled barley is the remaining kernel after two or three more pearlings after the pot stage, and is the kind most often found in the US. It also goes through a size-grading for uniformity. Since the small, round, white grains that are left have most of the embryo as well as the outer coating or bran removed, the B vitamins and fiber are also removed. Both the pot and pearled barley contain significantly fewer nutrients than whole barley. [“Pearlings” is a scouring or an abrasive procedure that removes the indigestible hull and all, or part, of the bran layer called “aleurone”. This is accomplished after three successive pearlings. What remains is known as pot barley. Six pearlings to achieve the pearled barley removes 74% protein, 85% fat, 97% fiber, and 88% of the minerals, including the calcium].
– Flakes or rolled barley is processed exactly the same way as rolled oats and can be used in a similar manner.
– Grits is whole, hulled barley that has been toasted and cracked into smaller pieces. It can be used in place of hominy grits.
– Groats are the kernels from which the outer hulls and seed coats have been removed. They are used for cooked cereals.
– Flour is the finely ground, highly refined product derived from pearl barley. It has a very low gluten content, so must be used in combination with a flour high in gluten if it is to be used in bread.
– Infant barley cereal is usually made from the coarse flour, with the addition of other substances for preservation and flavouring.
– Barley water is a traditional medicinal made at home by boiling barley in water. The infusion is cooled and sometimes sweetened or flavoured with citrus and given to infants, invalids, and tennis players at Wimbledon!
– Job’s tears is an ancient form of barley that is making a comeback. It is larger than pearled barley, having a wide brown cleft down one side. It is also sold under the names of Juno’s tears or river grain.
– Barley malt is a sweet syrup similar to unsulphured molasses and can be used as such. Barley malt or malted grain is one which has been induced to germinate and can come in either whole or in milled forms. In the West, most malt is made from barley and used mainly for making beer, whisky and malt vinegar. It is also important in commercial bread-making, with a little also turned into extract. The technology of malt making is done by malsters whose technology is now far ahead of where it once was. The process basically involves steeping a particular kind of grain bred for this purpose until it “chits”. This means that the rootlets burst through the seed coatings, allowing germination to proceed for a limited time, the length of which depends on what it will be used for in the end. The embryos are then killed by heat and the “green malt” is kilned to varying degrees of dryness and colour, after which, it is milled, if appropriate. The purpose of this process is to bring about chemical changes. The most important is the secretion of an enzyme called ‘amylase’ by the growing embryo. This enzyme produces dextrins and converts the starch in the grain to maltose (a sugar). Dextrins are gummy carbohydrates with a slightly sweet taste, making the resulting product suitable for fermentation.
If beer or vinegar is to be made from it, the milled malt is mashed in hot water to produce a filtered liquid, which is the “wort” of brewers. If the malt is to be used for bread-making, it is not mashed but added directly to the flour. Besides being a direct source of sugar, the malt is able to convert the starch in the flour into sugar, thus doubly providing feed for the yeast and an additional flavour. Most white bread contains little malt, while “Granary” bread is made from a malted meal with whole grains of cracked wheat scattered throughout. There are also sticky malt loaves made from wheat flour and barley malt. Malt can be nutritious, supplying energy, some B vitamins, and minerals. During the 19th century, it was used as a restorative food for invalids and sick children. Malt extract was once thought of as a “health food” but has begun to lose favour. The malt extract is made from the unfermented brewers wort that is evaporated in a partial vacuum, producing a brown, sticky, sweet concentrate. Malted barley cereals are ready-to-eat, and, therefore, have little food value.