The Oxford Companion to Beer definition of
(pronounced “bear”) is an ancient barley landrace, likely Britain’s oldest cultivated cereal. It was widely grown across Britain until more modern, high-yielding barleys were developed. A six-row spring barley adapted to the short growing seasons of northern areas, bere is currently grown on limited acreage in the Scottish Islands. Modern development of the grain was by Dr Geoff Sellars of the Orkney Institute of Agronomy, and its commercialization has been similar to the expansion of the use of spelt grain as a premium product.
“Bere” has its origins in the Old English word for barley, “Bœr.” It is synonymous with “Bygg” or “Bigg” barley, terms likely derived from the old Norse word for barley, “Bygg,” which itself originates in the Arabic for barley. All of the Scandinavian languages used bygg for barley. Once in the UK, bygg came to be spelled “bigg.”
Numerous sources state that not only the name but also the grain itself came with Viking colonists to Orkney. However, analysis of the genetic makeup of bere barley races from various Scottish islands and from Scandinavia are all distinctly different and must, therefore, have evolved each on its own island. No doubt the Vikings found barley there on Orkney and called it by their usual name for it.
Agronomical problems with the ancient grain include susceptibility to lodging and powdery mildew, variable grain size, and high levels of protein. Bere can produce quite spectacular protein deposits in the kettle after boiling of the wort. Additionally, bere grain is relatively high in nitrogen, which reduces alcohol yield. Earlier planting dates and the addition of growth regulators have ameliorated some of the problems, and the grain is used today primarily for specialty whiskey, beer, and local bread products.
Beer brewed from bere barley has a distinctive, pleasant, smoky flavor with a slightly bitter aftertaste.