Alberta's Booming Barley Industry

Chocolate is classy, so are champagne and oysters, but barley? Most likely the only barley you grew up eating was in soup at grandma’s.

But now barley has come of age, especially in this province, and has become a culinary highlight for local chefs and distilleries. Throughout the province where the farm-to-table initiative is more than a trend, barley is picking up the slack. Popular on many menus, barley has a distinct flavour profile and is an ever-versatile grain.

And why not? It's practically perfect, a complex carbohydrate full of a myriad of health benefits and grown right here in Alberta. Aside from being a nutritional powerhouse, it has a wonderful flavour and texture — nutty and rich. It also makes an excellent replacement for other grains, adding some substance to salads, and of course as part of the “let’s make risotto with anything else but rice” trend. Where have you been all my life, barley?

Barley is an ancient grain with uses dating back to ancient Israelite, Egyptian and Greek cultures. It has been used as currency and as a standard of measurement. While grown all over the world, it's Canada’s fourth largest crop, with 90 per cent grown in western Canada. Our cool winters and dry prairie air provide optimal growing and storage conditions for resisting disease and maintaining quality standards. As a result, Canada, and specifically farmers in Alberta, have been at the forefront of research and development of barley production and innovation in farming. 

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This is partly because of the economic significance (Canada is the second largest malting barley and malt exporter in the world) and partly because of barley's usefulness in food and beverages — mostly beer. Seriously, beer making is one of the first cottage industries known to man. Barley is harvested and then goes through the malting process. Grains are soaked so they sprout, spread out to dry and then heated, resulting in malt barley. Beer uses the malt barley, which is responsible for the colour, aroma and foam in our drinks.

Until recently, the only way to sell barley was through the Canadian Wheat Board, and malt barley used by brewers was obtained from malting companies in bulk. Eau Claire Distillery has set out to change this, and become a big part of the “branding” of Alberta-grown barley. The distillery considers their barley to be the best in the world, and it was a natural progression to create Alberta’s first single malt whisky. With a background in beer and a passion for traditional horse farming, the distiller uses Alberta barley in their premium spirits. 

The barley is planted and harvested with teams of horses and Alberta cowboys (yee-haw!) on select acreages across the province; that allows for the nuances of the malt to be traced back to the land where the grain was grown, much like the notion of “terroir” is recognized in wine production. After that, the malt is further distilled to create the spirit. Not just unique to Alberta, Eau Claire Distillery is the only distillery in North America with its own horse farming operations. Being in control of the whole process, they have created the ultimate “farm to glass” experience with their craft spirits.

So what could be classier than sipping on the spirit of your choice made with Alberta barley based on traditions rooted in this province, this country, maybe even with a cowboy? I’m in for more barley in my food and drink!

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Health and Nutrition 

Barley contains protein, soluble and insoluble fibres, healthy fatty acids, B vitamins, iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, zinc and antioxidants (great for immune and anti-inflammatory disorders). It does contain gluten, but is low on the glycemic index (the lowest of any grain). For an in-depth nutritional guide and outline of health benefits, visit whfoods.org

Cooking with Barley 

Dehulled barley has the inedible outer layers removed. Pearl barley is steam processed (pearling) to remove the outer layers as well as some of the bran layer; processed but still containing fibre. Pot barley is also pearled, but most of the bran and germ layers remain. Both can be cooked very much like other grains and made into flakes or flour. For a great selection of recipes, visit GoBarley and the cookbook Go Barley: Modern Recipes for an Ancient Grain by Pat Ingrid and Linda Whitworth.

To taste the farm to glass experience, or participate in the annual spring planting this May, contact Eau Claire Distillery, 403-933-5408.

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