I’ll be the first person to tell you that there are a ton of beer styles where two-row barley is the way to go. But I’d also argue that six-row shouldn’t be totally written off. From a brewer’s perspective, here are two ways that six-row can make a superior beer.
First: Six-row generally will have lower extract by weight than two-row. That’s because two-row kernels are plumper and therefore have a higher proportion of starch to “other.” With a higher percentage of “other” (such as tannin from husk material), six-row delivers more grain flavor thanks to its smaller size. I hear so many in the industry talk about creating flavor. Then why would we all be focusing only on two-row? Here at Riggs Beer, we brew a 100 percent six-row barleywine each year that has no perceptible astringency. As long as your pH and sparge techniques are dialed in, I don’t think there’s any need to worry about six-row astringency.
Second: Being a fifth-generation corn farmer, I love that six-row is perfectly suited to be brewed with my farm’s most important crop. Using corn as an adjunct gives me an opportunity to achieve some truly unique flavors. Modern brewers who use “corn” are generally using some form of processed corn: grits, flakes, or syrup (dextrose). At our brewery, we take a different approach. We use the whole kernel of a special variety of low-oil, white corn. This whole-kernel-corn method is likely what was first used by early American brewers who invented the “double-mash” technique. We use no corn processing or exogenous enzymes, and the result is a beer that I’m really proud of.
It’s true that the American Malting Barley Association (AMBA) specifications for two-row barley make great beer. This is especially true if I’m using a single-temperature infusion brewhouse. If I don’t have access to adjuncts or a brewhouse that can double mash and step mash, I need the farmer and maltster to deliver base malt that conforms to those specifications. What’s really cool, though, is that if you take average six-row characteristics (higher enzymatic power, higher protein, higher FAN, etc.) and blend it with corn at an 80/20 ratio, you end up with an overall grain bill that lines up perfectly with the AMBA specs. The resulting beer has ideal technical characteristics as well as a distinct flavor profile.
The crazy thing is, it was Mother Nature who originally pushed me into brewing with six-row. I spent the first three years of my brewing career in Germany, where six-row barley isn’t widely used. Not long after I moved back near our family’s farm in Illinois, my brother and I started noticing that six-row barley seemed to be a much more robust crop than two-row. For example, last winter’s “polar vortex” killed all of our two-row. We’ve never lost a crop of six-row. As a vertically integrated brewery—where the farmer is also the brewer—the farmer’s challenges have as much weight as the brewer’s. This is our fifth year of growing barley. For the first time, we’re planting six-row exclusively.
I recently talked with several large maltsters, and they all have either already discontinued six-row base malt or have plans to do so within the next 12 to 24 months. It is possible that six-row base malt won’t be available for purchase in North America next year—and North America is where the six-row brewing tradition started. There’s no way that Europe is going to start growing six-row for base malt. Not to sound too dramatic, but the original American double-mash lager is in real danger of disappearing.
I just find it weird, and a little scary, that everyone in the industry is running in the same direction—away from six-row. Over the past couple of decades, American brewers have played a major role in reviving so many nearly forgotten European beer styles. Now we’re at risk of losing one of our own classic styles.