Whilst feed is the major use of the barley crop, the malting barley crop is far more valuable as farmers generally receive a significant premium over feed barley when selling to the malting market.

For Food

Barley has long been used as a food source and a further post-domestication change resulted in barley grain that threshed free from the husk and was thus much more palatable. The mutation that resulted in this change is thought to have occurred in the Middle East around 8000 BC but gradually spread to other regions so that hulless (naked) barley grain have been found in archaeological digs in Northern Scotland. Barley was viewed as a nutritious food and Roman gladiators were known as hordearii (barley men) because it formed part of their training diet. Wheat gradually took over from barley as a major food cereal due to the increased numbers of grains per ear and free threshing so that today food use of barley amounts to 4% of the total production at 6Mt p.a.

Barley is a good source of beta-glucan, a soluble fibre that has useful properties that have been recognised by the US Food and Drug Administration publishing a health claim for high beta-glucan barley. Many US supermarkets stock food barley in whole grain, flaked or milled forms in recognition of a small but growing demand for barley as a foodstuff. Visit the National Barley Foods Council website for some information and recipes from the US or check out The Guardian for some UK recipes.

For Malting, Brewing and Distilling

Barley has been associated with beer production for a very long time as traces of beer products can be found in pottery that is at least 9,000 years old and brewing is thought to have existed on an organized scale in pre-Dynastic Egypt 7000 to 5000 years ago. By 2014, world beer consumption had grown to over 1,960 million hectolitres (, equating to over 21.5 million tonnes of malt at an average conversion rate of 11 kg malt to 1 hectolitre of beer. Similarly, Scottish distillers, the major users of barley in the distilling segment, have increased production of malt whisky over the same period so the demand for malting barley to service these two segments would have been in excess of 28 million tonnes from harvest 2014 assuming a conversion of 1.2t barley into 1t malt, although the UK operates at a conversion of 1.3:1 (

The malting market for barley can be split into three distinct categories, pure malt brewing, malt for adjunct brewing and distilling malt, with the latter being sub-divided into pure malt and grain (adjunct) malt distilling. Each sector has specific requirements that are generally defined by grain nitrogen or protein content. In the UK, the Maltsters Association of Great Britain (MAGB) introduced a nitrogen banding classification to identify to growers the specific types of barley that they wished to buy in three defined regions. The bands represent a progression from pure malt distilling through pure malt brewing to grain malt distilling with the malt distilling demand in Scotland represented by almost 90% of the purchase requirements in the less than 1.65% categories. Malt for grain distilling represents the bulk of the highest grain nitrogen requirement in Scotland and North England.

The prime requirement for adjunct brewing where barley is incorporated with a cheaper source of starch like maize, or distilling, is high starch digesting ability, known as high diastase activity, coupled with an adequate level of malt extract. The main function of the barley malt in this case is to digest the starch adjunct to release fermentable sugars for yeast to convert into alcohol and there is a positive correlation between grain nitrogen content and diastase activity. The primary requirement for malt distilling is the production of a high level of fermentable sugars to maximize the production of raw spirit per tonne of malt consumed. Maltsters tend to use relatively few cultivars that they buy in large quantity as they have proved suitable in their process and subsequent downstream processes. MAGB collate the tonnages of each variety purchased by its member companies each year and we have compile the data to survey purchases since 1991 for England and Scotland.

English malting purchases are largely for the brewing market. Varieties Cassata through to Winsome are winter types that were formerly preferred by English maltsters, accounting for 75% of the market in 1991 but around 40% in 2014. Whilst the proportion of spring barley purchases has increased, it hasn’t matched the decline in the winters so the overall trend is a decline matching the decline in UK beer production. Varieties like Halcyon, Pearl, Pipkin, Optic and NFC Tipple dominate the purchase patterns over the period but Maris Otter has been in constant demand over the whole period, never falling below 20,000t and increasing recently with the growth of craft brewing in the UK and USA.

Scottish malting barley purchases are almost entirely for the distilling market which has seen growth in demand over the period and consequently an increasing trend in purchases by Scottish maltsters. The other major contrast with the English purchases is the very small amount of winter barley. All varieties above Belgravia and Blenheim are spring but the market is again dominated by relatively few varieties with a progression from Camargue through Chariot and Optic to the current market leader, Concerto.

Learn more

about barley