Israeli archaeologists discovered ancient barley among other items near a grinding stone sealed in mud between 19,000 and 20,000 years ago under the Sea of Galilee. This discovery pushed back the latest possible start date of barley’s cultivation by almost 10,000 years. In fact, a fairly respectable theory of the founding of civilization says that former nomads only gave up their wandering ways once they had tasted beer. The agricultural ability to consistently brew adult beverages from cultivated grains like barley meant that people who wanted alcohol had to either form permanent settlements or raid those who did.
Archaeological evidence shows clearly that the wild ancestors of modern barley grew throughout the Fertile Crescent. Ancient farmers foraged the wild crops and began planting and harvesting their own barley during the last Ice Age. Since then, DNA sequencing and traditional research have shown us that breeding efforts for the crop began thousands of years ago. At present, there are at least 49 distinct cultivars of barley, with many hundreds more either showing negligible variation from the favored 49 or considered to be outmoded by newer breeds.
The plant physically appears much like wheat, and it similarly occupies an agricultural niche in-between other crops. It can have a high protein content relative to corn, but will never compete with legumes like soybeans in that regard. Similarly, it has a high caloric content relative to soybeans, but won’t pose a threat to production of King Corn. Barley can grow in cool temperate regions such as Canada, Russia, and Patagonia, and breeders have created spring and winter varieties to optimize production in colder areas. Farmers generally prefer to rotate corn and soybeans if they have the necessary warmth, but those in less fertile climes can profitably decide on wheat or barley. Furthermore, barley has particularly advantageous characteristics for the production of some varieties of beer. Through the malting process, or partial sprouting followed by roasting, it takes on flavors difficult or impossible to brew up with other grains.
Partly due to a complex genome that’s difficult to alter using current methods, and partly due to a lack of interest in the crop, there are very few available genetically-modified forms of barley. These varieties have not achieved a significant market presence; the popular cultivars all came about through conventional breeding techniques. For some customers, this adds to the appeal of the grain. Buyers feel confident that they have a ‘natural’ product.
More than half of the barley in the world comes from Europe, but South America has grown its production rapidly for the past 10 years. World trade looks similar, with most of the global exports coming from Europe, North America in decline, and South America and Australia rising.
Europe features seven out of the top 10 barley-producing countries in the world. In order, they are: Russia, Germany, France, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom (UK). The more-expensive, semi-artisanal barleys malted for beer mainly originate in France and Germany.
USDA analysts currently forecast a decline in European barley yield from 38.58 bushels per acre (bu/ac) to 38.45 bu/ac this year. If anything, this seems like a mild decline when compared to the weather problems unfolding in the big barley-producing areas. Using satellite measurement of evapotranspiration and weighting the results by barley acreage at the district/county level, we can see significant and increasing dryness in Russia, Ukraine, and Germany which will probably lead to even lower yields and production than currently forecast.
Canada ranks just behind France as the number four barley producer in the world. Given the northern location of the country and the limited area suitable for other crops, wheat and barley cultivation make great sense there. Most of Canadian barley gets used for animal feed.
The booming US craft brewing industry strongly prefers malted barley to other grains like wheat, rice, oats, sorghum, and millet. The number of operations and volume of brewing conducted by craft-style brewers continue to rise sharply, although many of the new brands actually belong to larger companies. Regardless of their ownership, the brewers tend to import their malt from Europe in attempts to replicate European beer and ale styles. They contribute heavily to barley export totals from Europe to the US. In 2013, AB Inbev (formerly Anheuser-Busch) launched the “SmartBarley” program to build an ability to produce craft-style beer using non-European barley, but so far the results have not impressed brewers.
Partly as a result, the US barley production industry has shrunk in recent decades, and its geographic distribution has changed significantly as well. A broad consensus has formed on a combination of corn and soybeans as the best crops to plant in order to profit from good farmland. In a virtuous cycle, seed research and development focused on those crops and improved them even further, cementing their status as the crops of choice. For farmland with less sunlight or warmth, farmers settle for wheat and barley. In effect, they have become crops to plant in environments that don’t support corn and soybeans.
South America plays a minor role in the barley production industry, with only Argentina producing a significant amount of the grain. But production is growing at a fast pace, and therefore merits mention as a possible future source. Also, with brewers’ ongoing efforts to use cheaper South American product and European crops getting hit with bad weather, the next few years might see the first significant substitution of Argentine malt.
A long-time major producer, currently ranked eighth in the world, Australia’s strong agricultural export program supplies Asian markets with most of their barley needs for malt and feed grain. This has meant that brewers outside Asia haven’t extended their sourcing efforts there. Steady growth in antipodean supply has met continued growth in regional demand. From outsiders’ perspectives, the vast distance separating Australia from other major markets has meant that its crop has remained uncompetitive outside of its current trading relationships.
Barley has managed to be one of the most heavily-produced crops in the world and yet simultaneously attract little or no attention from the press and the trading community. Regardless of their cause and political significance, warming temperatures and lengthening growing seasons have allowed farmers to substitute more-profitable corn/soybean rotations for their parents’ barley and wheat. The meteoric rise of craft-style brewing in the US provided a huge new outlet for (mainly) European production, but most of the grain still goes into relatively low-margin livestock feed rations.
The recent involvement of huge brewers like AB Inbev, motivated by high prices for malt from Europe, could lead to genetic improvements and expansion of barley cultivation. Current weather problems in traditional acreage in Germany and the former Soviet Union could further accelerate a shift to new areas in South America. Otherwise, it seems reasonable to expect continued steady, undramatic production moving slightly further away from the Equator each year.
So what does all of this analysis mean for the tortured, allegorical hero of our story, John Barleycorn?
In 2011, Island Records released a remastered version of the 1970 Traffic performance of the medieval song “John Barleycorn Must Die”. In it, lead vocalist Steve Winwood recounts all the gruesome abuse Mr. Barleycorn endures on his way to becoming beer, and his resurrection in the spring to start all over again. Unfortunately for Mr. Barleycorn, our research suggests that this cycle will likely continue uninterrupted as long as people like to drink alcohol.