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Probably the Future of Beer?

A 170th anniversary is a bit of an odd one to celebrate. A 150th, of course; a 175th, maybe, but a 170th smacks of an excuse to have a party.

CarlsbergLabInfoThis is not my view. It's the candid admission of Jessica Spence, chief commercial officer at Carlsberg.

Basically, at the Danish brewery they've been taking a long, cold look at how they operate and reached the conclusion that, perhaps, they've not really been living up to the ideals laid out by the company’s founder, JC Jacobsen.

In response, they’ve been making some changes to get back on track. The 170th birthday is, therefore, a handy reason to invite journalists to Copenhagen to let the world know what’s happening.

‘It’s a bit of an excuse, but a nice excuse,’ Jessica concedes. ‘We have a wonderful past and are now beginning to see a beautiful future coming out of that.’

What Jessica is largely alluding to is JC Jacobsen’s famous philanthropic approach to brewing research (and also his son Carl’s similar generosity when it came to the arts).

Free for the World

Jacobsen had the foresight to establish a state-of-the-art laboratory in Copenhagen in 1875, staffing it with leading scientific minds – an unusual development in industry at the time. Even more unusual was the fact that whenever his boffins came up with something revolutionary, Jacobsen simply gave it away.

Instead of patenting what could have been a long-term goldmine, he released it free for the benefit of the whole world. So it was with the first pure lager yeast, developed by Emile Christian Hansen in 1883 (covered on these pages a year ago), and also with the introduction by SPL Sorensen of the pH scale in 1909.

Carlsberg has continued to be at the forefront of brewing research, with a recent innovation – as part of an international consortium – the mapping of the barley genome.

Unlocking the secrets of the cereal offers huge potential for selectively breeding crops that are more heat- or drought-tolerant, for instance, or that deliver better starch quality.

The researchers in Copenhagen are now taking this major discovery and working out ways in which it can be used for the benefit of the world of brewing, with particular regard to dealing with energy consumption, water usage and climate change. 

New Brewing Barley

So far four generations of a new brewing barley have been developed, each building on the strengths of its predecessor and adding new qualities that have advantages in the brewhouse and, to illustrate just what might be possible if these new barleys and the associated research are taken on board, the brewers in Carlsberg’s laboratory have prepared three new lagers, using their own pilot plant.

The first beer they present to inquisitive journalists is called Single Malt Lager, brewed using the fourth-generation barley strain named Null-LOX4G. The crop is harvested from a single field in New Zealand (trials take place both in Denmark and in New Zealand to deliver two harvests a year and thus speed up the research time).

It’s a simple 5% ABV golden lager, lightly dry-hopped with Nelson Sauvin hops. Easy-drinking and well balanced, it has a delicate hint of that Nelson Sauvin character, peach-juicy and floral.

But it’s not the taste of the beer that is so important – not words I’m often given to writing. In this case, the merit lies in proving that this new strain of barley is up to the job because the other benefits it delivers are significant.

For instance, properties bred into the barley mean that this beer does not include certain polyphenols – a technical way of saying that it will not get hazy when cold. This means that brewers do not have to spend time and energy finding ways around this issue, either by treating the beer with enzymes or by lowering the temperature so that the hazy bits clump together and can be filtered out.

The barley has also been bred to omit an enzyme that causes unpleasant, stale-tasting papery notes in a beer as it ages and, perhaps most significantly, the barley does not produce DMS – the chemical that gives some beers a cooked vegetable note.

Brewers normally eliminate this by using malt that has been more heavily kilned or, in the brewhouse, through a more intense boil and rapid wort cooling. If barley for brewing can be produced in this way, the cost and environmental benefits are obvious.

Green Barley

The second beer presented doesn’t feature a new variety of barley but rethinks the whole concept of how barley is used. It’s another simple golden lager, this time notching up 5.5% and its significance lies in the fact that it has been partly created from green barley. This is barley that has fully grown but has yet to ripen in the warmth of the sun. A sheaf is thrown onto a table so we can see what this means.

The barley looks like grass. It is damp and sappy with vibrant green corns and stalks. For use in the beer – named Young Lager – the green barley has not been malted.

Instead, the sugars have been extracted by using a juicer and the extract added to wort derived from conventional malted barley, which provides enzymes to convert the green-barley’s sugars into a fully fermentable form. The beer tastes fresh and verdant, with a suggestion of pea and some juicy sweetness.

There are potential cost and energy benefits here, of course, but particularly exciting is the fact that the use of unripened barley opens up the cultivation of the cereal to parts of the world where, normally, the lack of sunshine prohibits it. The Danes are already talking about the potential of Greenland. And, because the crop spends less time in the field, it may be possible to grow it twice in a year.

There are, naturally, many hurdles to be jumped before this potential is realised – damp, green crops cannot be harvested by combines, for instance – but again Carlsberg are confident they may be onto something.

Red Lager

So far Carlsberg have shown us only pale beers. They’ve saved the most interesting new creation to last.

Red LagerOne of the significant demands on time, energy and cost during the brewing process comes with producing darker beers. To create that rich deep amber colour, or alluring hues of chocolate and ebony, malt needs to be roasted.

But what if that expensive process could be eliminated simply by selecting different varieties of barley? The Carlsberg guys have already gone some way to providing the answer. They’ve developed a variety that has a dark red husk and have used this to prove that beer can be naturally dark.

The trial brew they present is a beautiful rich red colour like a kriek or framboise. The bright crimson hue suggests the use of cherries or raspberries, and you expect a bold fruitiness in the taste, but your eyes deceive you.

There is a little fruit courtesy of Citra and Mosaic hops, but this is a mostly straightforward lager (5.2%), made using a grist split 45/55 between red barley/standard malt – the brewers tried malting the red barley but the process leached much of the colour so they had to use it neat, as an adjunct.

Apart from the startling colour it generates, red barley is extremely high in antioxidants, with all their publicised health benefits, and it also produces a beer with a remarkably stable foam, so it’s no one-trick pony.

Geographically, it can be grown in the same regions as normal barley, as long as there is enough sunlight to encourage the production of the red pigment, so again the potential is obvious.

The researchers have also experimented with black barley, but with little luck so far, as the dark colour does not survive the process but, assuming only red barley can be utilised in this way, once again the economic and ecological benefits are there to see.

That last beer – they’ve called it simply Red Lager – is a real showstopper. Its amazing colour visually signposts that there is some serious alternative thinking going on at Carlsberg, even if none of these beers is anywhere near going commercial at this point.

If five more years of intensive research take what’s been discovered in recent months and continue the trajectory of brewing progress, the company will have plenty to shout about when its 175th anniversary comes around.

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