Two-Row vs. Six-Row Barley

barleyI was sitting in the shade enjoying the lovely Belgian ale on tap when someone asked me what I thought about two-row barley. I am lucky enough to live in a region where I can get either six-row or two-row most of the time, so I adjust my grain bill to the recipe at hand, rather than the other way around. Many brewers prefer two-row barley for its greater extract value; on examination that’s interesting, since the difference is 1 to 2 percent, hardly noticeable at the homebrewer level. I generally prefer two-row, but I’m not sure I could quantify why, since both types appear in many of my favorite beers. Maybe we all think two-row is just more chic.

Two-row or six-row? It’s a very American question. Most of the rest of the world uses six-row barley only for livestock feed, not for beer. I thought six-row barley had been bred especially to increase output, but it turns out to be a naturally-occurring result of a pair of mutations, one dominant and one recessive. Both two-row and six-row barley have been around for a long, long time.

Breeding efforts of the last half-century have reduced and perhaps functionally eliminated most of the differences between the two types of barley. Economies of scale at big breweries make many of their differences moot. There are still distinctions between kernel size, extract, protein and enzymes—all this information can be found online, depending on your tolerance for technical detail.

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