Why Bere Barley?

IN

Bere barley has been a part of our annual mash bill since 2006, first grown for Bruichladdich in 2005, on Islay. For nearly 16 years, we have remained committed to working with this notoriously difficult, ancient, six row barley. Anyone who has sampled the resulting whisky, whether they become ardent fans or not, will tell you that it offers something different to the flavour spectrum. But that flavour is exceedingly hard won, in more than one respect. One has to ask; is it worth it?

It’s been a long journey. Bere barley grows well on the northern isles, like Orkney, because it grows quickly in poor, sandy soils and ripens early in long hours of summer daylight – 18.5 hours a day on a latitude it shares with parts of Scandinavia and Alaska. Islay is a nearly four degrees south of this and other conditions differ; more on that later.

In the malting process, our partners Bairds go to great lengths changing their malt screening process to accommodate its small grain size. In the mashing, we have been forced to reduce the batch tonnage when the bere comes through because of the way it holds water. Out in the market, in the end, we rely on whisky fans that have an appetite for a niche whisky made from an almost unknown barley varietal. So why do Bruichladdich continue to furrow brows over this awkward grain?

Allan Logan, now Production Director, remembers how it began, as it so often does in Laddieland, with serendipity.

An excited Carl Reavey, friend of and future communications man for the distillery, returned from Orkney full of vim and vigour over this exciting and delicious grain, already used up north in bannocks, beer and even whisky. He sparked the interest of his friend Mark Reynier (then the driving force at Bruichladdich distillery). The prospect of Bruichladdich bere appeared in tandem with the new venture of growing malting barley on Islay.

The distillery was in discussion Islay farmers, and Chloe Randall, then manager of an estate on Islay with three working farms, took up the conversation with the Agronomy Institute in Orkney. Serendipity was involved, as it often seems to be at Bruichladdich, as these discussions were taking place at a time when the Institute was trying to identify new commercial uses for the heritage grain. So the first bere seed was sent down to Dunlossit Estate. Dr Peter Martin from the Agronomy Institute, Orkney, came to visit Islay in 2006 and met with Mark and the Bruichladdich team, and that’s a relationship we maintain to the present day. Some of Peter’s articles on bere are published here >.

Allan Logan (of the Bruichladdich Logans) tells the story

Though it grew well, it was difficult to harvest and very hard to handle. Not just off the field but also at the maltsters. Allan Logan recounts the Islay grown bere:

“On Dunlossit Estate on Islay there were three successive years of bere crop, grown from Orkney seed. In 2005 and 2006 a bere crop was taken off the fields. It grew well but come harvest, it was not without its own headaches. But in 2007 the deer, the geese and the weather got the better of the bere.” The efforts of farmers Jim and Raymond are to be commended in comparison to the relative ease of the conventional barley being grown elsewhere on the estate and the rest of the island. After those three years of toil, all parties agreed on the move towards an Orkney grown malt crop, “That was the first turning point for them and us; it wasn’t a viable crop here at the time. From then on we’ve continued with just growing in Orkney. It grows for them, it’s controlled – Dr Peter Martin and the team have the experience and the knowledge of how it grows and they can make it work.”.

And so our bere supply chain moved solely to Orkney. Something we are proud to still support to this day. The Agronomy institute at UHI are doing frontier work with bere in many aspects of globally important cereal science e.g the tolerance of micronutrient deficiency in cereals. The academic team on Orkney are at the forefront of landrace exploration and we are indebted to their skill and drive.

How to mash bere

Already several years into working with bere in 2010 we took a big blow to the old Victorian mash tun. A combination of a mashtun that was over 100 years old and the extra strain being put on it by the bere meant the central shaft of the stirring mechanism sheered and production had to halt.

“The bere was becoming really dense in the mash tun. While the 7 tonne mashes were the same weight as a normal one they seemed to gain volume due to the different grist make up. When you mashed it, it was fine, but when you were draining the water off  you were left with this mass that was compacted round the steer. Starting the steer to mix it, the extra compression around the mechanism put on extra strain.” 

“That was another turning point for us – when it broke and we had to get it repaired, it was costly. We lost production, and getting it repaired wasn’t easy but rather than saying ‘right we‘re never going to work with bere’ – we then looked at how we could make some changes. We replaced the shaft and now when we do bere barley we do smaller 5 tonne mashes. And then the mashman just makes sure they are cautious when starting the steer!”

 

Jim Logan (of the Ceannacroic Logans), one of our original bere farmers on Islay

The future of bere

 

With the fortune of hindsight Allan suggests that perhaps bere will be grown on Islay again “I think under the right conditions – as we go forward under our own control, then we could take the risk. However, the [Orkney] supply is working well and without giving any one farmer too much risk in terms of what they’re growing. But maybe we we’ll try it again – whether its on the croft or if we work with Islay farmers who’re prepared to take the risk.”.

And with the acquisition of our own Shore House Croft we’ve made a longterm commitment to understanding and exploring progressive agriculture, including rotational farming and natural soil fertility. We can look into the possibilities of future changes in practice and take on some of the risks associated to finding new and old varieties of barley, potentially suited to Islay; risks that might be too big for one grower to simply take on alone. Along with our partners’ experience at Orkney UHI and James Hutton Institute, and further beyond (see Bread Lab) we are excited to see how these partnerships and research will continue.

So. Making bere sits under a much bigger, forward-looking conversation for us now; a commitment that looks beyond the shores of Islay-grown barley. Bruichladdich provides a market for bere grain growers on Orkney in turn supporting a living, breathing system in that community. In addition, by producing bere whisky we are supporting and enabling the continuing research that is moulding future beneficial possibilities, not only to us but the greater farming, agricultural and agronomic communities. By finding and creating advancing strains of barley that harness the potential of ancient genetic variations, we may help future crops respond positively to the changes heading our way through climate change, soil degradation and soil losses. Changes that will threaten current agricultural practices and our global food security.

Yes, it’s something of a flavour revelation. But, to borrow from JFK, some things we choose to do, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”

 

>> Read more on being bere pioneers here

>> Take in a first hand experience of an Orkney harvest

Dr. Peter Martin of UHI looks over some of his bere trial plots on Orkney

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