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Barley’s Sixth Sense

Two-row barley is so intimately associated with American craft beer that brewers often use the terms “pale malt” and “two-row” interchangeably. But there’s another kind of barley out there that can be malted into a pale product. Six-row barley may suffer from a bit of an image problem, but homebrewers and commercial craft brewers alike are beginning to discover that a little six-row isn’t all that bad. And sometimes it can be very good.

Two-row and six-row barleys are named for the number of barley kernels that appear along the spine of the barley spike. A spike of two-row tends to look rather flat because kernels are arranged in rows on opposite sides of the plant. Six-row, on the other hand, has more of a rounded profile because kernels are arranged six at a time as you move up the stalk.

Six-row isn’t as commonly used as two-row in craft beer, but large American breweries have long relied on it for a few good reasons. Six-row barley

  • Is less expensive than two-row barley.
  • Has thicker husks than two-row, which enhances lautering performance.
  • Is diastatically powerful and can convert unmalted adjuncts with ease.
  • Is high in protein.

In fact six-row is so high in protein, and so rich in enzymes, that it is traditionally cut with a proportion of unmalted grains. This is one reason why many industrial-scale American lager breweries include rice or maize (corn) in their formulations. Happily for them, this means that more beer can be made more cheaply with six-row. Unfortunately for those of us who enjoy flavorful lagers, the amount of adjunct that typically goes into these macro-beers is so high (and the hopping rates so low) that the resulting product leaves one wanting.

But six-row barley needn’t take a back seat to two-row. In fact, six-row barley malt and maize regularly featured in American lagers before Prohibition just as they do today. But according to the late George Fix, these “Pre-Prohibition Pilsners” were relatively strong, firmly hopped, flavorful, and refreshing. If you brew one yourself, you’ll likely agree.

But before you run out and buy a 50 pound bag of six-row malt, keep in mind that it does come with some challenges. Specifically, six-row’s high protein content is more likely to contribute to chill haze than two-row’s, and the thicker husks deliver more tannic astringency, so sparge with care. And six-row is more susceptible to creating corn-like dimethyl sulfide (DMS), which when combined with actual maize, can yield a lager that would feel right at home in an Iowa farm field.

Here’s a recipe for a classic American pale lager that pairs the sweetness of maize and six-row with the spiciness of Czech Saaz hops. Like a nineteenth-century immigrant to this country, it’s a little bit European, a little bit American, and completely characterful. Na zdraví!

Honus Wagner’s Favorite

OG: 1.049
FG: 1.008
IBUs: 33
ABV: 5.4%

MALT/GRAIN BILL

8 lb (3.6 kg) 6-row pale malt
2 lb (907 g) Flaked maize

HOPS SCHEDULE

1 oz (28 g) Saaz (3.5% AA) at 60 minutes
1 oz (28 g) Saaz (3.5% AA) at 30 minutes
1 oz (28 g) Saaz (3.5% AA) at 15 minutes
1 oz (28 g) Saaz (3.5% AA) at 10 minutes
1 oz (28 g) Saaz (3.5% AA) at 5 minutes

YEAST OPTIONS

Wyeast 2007 Pilsen Lager or White Labs WLP840 American Lager

DIRECTIONS

Mash the grain at 125°F (52°C) for a 20-minute protein rest, then raise the temperature to 150°F (66°C) and hold for a 60-minute saccharification rest. Lauter and sparge to a pre-boil volume of 7 gallons, and boil for 90 minutes, following the hops schedule. Cool to 48°F (9°C), pitch the yeast, and allow temperature to rise to 52°F (11°C). Ferment for 5 days, then raise the temperature to 65°F (18°C) for a 2-day diacetyl rest. Rack to secondary and slowly lower the temperature to 34°F (1°C) for a six-week lagering phase. Bottle or keg to 2.6 volumes of CO2.

Learn to create crisp, cold-conditioned lagers with Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®’s Introduction to Lagering online class. Sign up today!

Recipe is built to yield a batch size of 5 gallons (19 liters) and assumes 72 percent brewhouse efficiency.

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