A flavourful, sugary wort is the point in the brewing process where the brewer steps back and lets nature take it’s course. The brewer has provided their chosen yeast a hospitable environment with plenty of food so it can go about it’s natural process of consuming sugar and producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. One of the three components of a good wort and it’s source of fermentable sugar is barley, and barley is where my endeavour to grow beer begins.
Obtaining Seed Barley
Getting a stock of seed barley to plant initially seems like the hardest part of the process. Where does someone go to get seed barley? They don’t sell it at the big box store garden centre seed rack or down at the local nursery so it seems like something that is difficult to find. It’s actually pretty easy to find though. Most rural communities have a feed mill or farm supply store that sell all kinds of seed, grain, feed, livestock supplies – whatever a farmer needs. My local mill is 5 minutes down the road!
Locating a place to buy seed barley is only part of the process. Figuring out what you want is the other part of the process. 2 row? 6 row? Treated? Untreated? Depending on where you live and what the farmers around you grow will dictate what you are able to find. If the local farmers don’t (or can’t) grow it the local feed mill won’t sell it. Simple as that.
My local mill sells 6 row barley. It comes as cleaned seed barley and uncleaned whole feed barley. Cleaned seed barley at my mill is treated with a fungicide to improve yields for commercial farmers by reducing fungus issues when the seeds are sown. Sounds like a good thing at the outset, but the tag with the fungicide name on it also had an arms-length list of handling precautions and an explicit warning that it was not to be used as animal feed, meaning the excess could not be malted to make beer. For me, no good. Uncleaned whole barley on the other hand is generally sold as animal feed. The main difference here is uncleaned barley contains bits of stalk, the odd corn kernel, soybean or whatever else happened to be in the silo before it held barley. It also happens to be cheaper. For animal feed or a non commercial operation this is no big deal. It also has no harmful fungicides added so the remainder can be malted and roasted and used to make beer, which is a good thing because it comes in 40kg bags!
Site Preparation and Sowing
The process I used for my first attempt is very basic. The plot I planted on measures 14’x16′ so working it with simple hand tools is feasible, with the exception being a tiller. Turning a plot that size with a fork is certainly doable however it is much quicker to till.
Once the soil was turned it was simply a matter of casting the seed and covering. On my small plot hand casting the seeds is really all that is required. I used 2 passes, one casting East – West and a second casting North – South. This helps to ensure a more even coverage. Even coverage is essential in helping keep weeds down.
Figuring out how much to plant takes a bit of calculation but for my small plot about 2-3 lbs of seed is sufficient. At this point I decided to over-seed given that there are some unknowns about the seed stock I’ve chosen. So for my first attempt I used 5lbs of seed. A word about over-seeding though. More is not always better. Just like good even seed coverage helps keep weeds down, if the seeding is too dense it can affect yields by crowding itself out. Commercial producers plant with a seed drill that plants at a uniform depth and density to maximize yields. For my small garden plot I am going with trial and error. A few notes about how much I planted, how I planted it and what the yield ended up being in my garden journal will give me valuable reference data for future plantings.
Once the seeds have been cast it is simply a matter of raking the soil to help cover most of the seeds. According to OMAFRA¹ the ideal planting depth is approximately 1″. Raking seeds under will result in some seeds being deeper than an inch, some shallower and some still on the surface. The over-seeding will help compensate for some of the seed that will not germinate because of sub-optimal planting depth. Since rain was not forecasted for a few days but warm weather was on the way I watered with the sprinkler and now its up to the seeds, sun and rain to do the rest.
In the next 8 to 13 days the first shoots should start to emerge and I will be on my way to growing a crop of barley.