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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Two Items About Barley

If I told you that you'd have to give up beer to save the planet, exactly how conflicted would you be? (Mighty, in my case.) It may come to that:
And that is exactly what is happening to Erdmann and other German brewers as farmers abandon barley — the raw material for the national beverage — to plant other, subsidized crops for sale as environmentally friendly biofuels.

"With the current spike in barley prices, we won't be able to avoid a price increase of our beer any longer," Erdmann said, stopping to sample his freshly brewed, golden product right from the steel fermentation kettle.

In the last two years, the price of barley has doubled to $271 per ton as farmers plant more crops such as rapeseed and corn that can be turned into ethanol or biodiesel, a fuel made from vegetable oil.

This is one of those good news/bad news things. Good news that America is currently pursuing ethanol via the extremely inefficent but politically-expedient process of converting corn, bad that we will continue to dump carbon into the atmosphere as a result. Good that we have beer, bad that it may be our last.

Onto happier news, John Foyston had a wonderful piece in the Food Day about locally-produced Scotch. No, you can't call it that, because it's made here in Portland, but that's the kind of whisky it is. I bring it to your attention on the very slim chance you don't regularly read Food Day.
Whiskeys start with a grain-based sort of beer, or wash. Medoff brews his wash of malted barley at Roots Organic Brewing, a few blocks up the street...

The wash -- or mash, or distiller's beer -- ferments to about 7 percent alcohol. In the still, alcohol boils off and condenses as a much stronger essence of 30 percent to 40 percent alcohol. Because House Spirits and most Scotch producers use less-efficient pot stills (because it makes more flavorful whiskey) they distill at least twice to reach barrel strength of around 70 percent (140 proof).

The whiskey then spends several years in oak. "Everything that comes out of a still is clear," Medoff said as he stood beside the distillery's antique-looking pot still -- its top looks like a copper onion crowned by a long pipe curving over to the condenser. "Spirits are so stable that they won't age in the bottle or the tank. The only thing that can give it some color and those vanilla flavors is time in wood. That's one thing about whiskey -- you've got to be patient...."

Changes in temperature and humidity cause the barrel to breathe, which it does vigorously enough that an appreciable percentage of the spirit evaporates before aging is complete. Charmingly enough, brewers call the missing booze the angels' share. They seem resigned to the fact that distilling is a lot of hard work and waiting that, when it's all over, yields a mere fraction of what you began with. Medoff figures that he'll brew 600 gallons of wash to fill one 53-gallon whiskey barrel.

Angels' share. Cool.


  1. Jeff,

    Lost Abbey (which opened last year in the former Stone Brewing facility) in fact has a beer called Angel's Share.

    It is one terrific beer.

  2. thanks for the quote, you might imagine, that whiskey tasting was pretty fun ---perilously so, it might almost be said...luckily, commuting by bicycle keeps a lad semi-honest...