by Courtney Llewellyn

We recently touched upon a lot of the research going on in the world of barley. Today, we’ll be focusing specifically on naked barley. According to Brigid Meints, assistant professor at Oregon State University, the difference is this: Covered barley has an adhering husk, which is unpalatable. (It does have some advantages for brewing, though.) In naked barley, the husks come off cleanly, and it can be consumed as a food directly.

Meints, along with Cristiana Vallejos, a graduate research assistant at Oregon State, presented on naked barley during the virtual Grains Week. They’ve been working on “Developing Multi-Use Naked Barley for Organic Farming Systems,” which is funded by the USDA-NIFA-OREI. Participating states include Oregon, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York.

“The husk determines barley’s end use,” Meints explained. “Our goal is to develop multi-use naked barley.” Important traits for the crop include threshability (the ease of husk removal), resistance to embryo damage (which can lead to poor or uneven germination, and is related to the size and shape of the grain) and resistance to various diseases.

A major driver of this research is the growth of the organic malting and brewing industry. Organic beer sales in the U.S. increased from $9 million in 2003 to $92 million in 2014, according to Meints. To be certified organic, beer must contain 95% organically-produced ingredients. (It can also have a “made with organic” label, which requires 70% organic ingredients.) The cost and availability of organic ingredients is the biggest challenge for the industry, and while they’re still considered a “niche” market, even Big Beer is beginning to offer more options to consumers.

That said, nearly all malt barley is bred with a hull, and for a reason – it protects the plants’ acrospires and the hull adds a natural filtration agent. Meints said advances in brewing technology, including mash filters, can help mitigate this for naked barley. “Naked barley has the potential to have significantly higher levels of malt extract and improved beer quality,” she said.

Naked malt barley has its own issues, though. It sees higher screening losses; high temperatures during kilning can result in low friabilities due to case-hardening; and there can be embryo damage. Meints said it may be necessary to adjust steep and germination schedules to successfully malt naked barley. Their research is currently studying 384 naked barley lines and their agronomic traits, disease reactions and quality traits.

Since there are limited data on brewing trials, OSU has been leading some. Vallejos talked about them, including Study 1, in which two naked lines and one covered line were check malted in the OSU mini-malter. They looked at the functionality and flavor of the end result. In Study 2, they added a naked line to a covered line at five different blend levels – 10:90, 25:75, 50:50, 75:25 and 90:10 – and again looked at functionality and flavor.

“We recently completed a pilot test with Buck naked barley,” Vallejos explained. They added 10% rice hulls so as to not clog their equipment, but they saw no filtration issues.

OSU also collaborated with New Glarus Brewing Company in Wisconsin, where a sensory panel tested the end results. It was noted they preferred malts with higher colors (out of nine beers).

“We also collaborated with the Family Jones Distillery in Colorado,” Meints added. “We found those panelists could tell the difference between naked and covered malts.”

If you’re curious to see what else the researchers come up with naked barley, make sure to check out the Barley World website.