Quick, when you think barley, what do you think of? Well, you probably at least know that it’s a grain, perhaps having it in something like barley soup. But did you know that it’s an ingredient in beer? And not just any ingredient in beer, but one of the most important ingredients in beer!

The fact is that barley is one of the most important and historic foods around. It was one of the first cultivated grains, dating back thousands of years ago when it was central to the Fertile Crescent. Furthermore, ancient Egyptians actually used it both as currency and to brew beer. Centuries later, barley even became the root of the English measurement system. In the 1300s, Edward II of England defined an inch as “three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end to end lengthwise,” with the foot, yard, and mile following on.

Today, barley is one of the most important and popular grains in the world. In America, for example, more than half of U.S. states grow it, with Idaho ranking number one in its production. So it was only fitting that I joined Let’s Grab a Beer and a number of other beer enthusiasts recently for a beer road trip in Idaho to get a behind-the-scenes look at beer, and more specifically, the role that barley plays in the production of beer.

Barley field farm in Idaho

It seemed only appropriate that our “barley field trip” would take us to a town called Ririe, which sounds like a grain itself when spoken (RYE-ree). We pulled up to Hamilton Triple C Farms, one of a number of Idaho farms that supplies raw barley to Anheuser-Busch, where barley stretched for days against the backdrop of rolling hills.

Upon pulling up to the farm, I exclaimed aloud, “This is it?.” I don’t know what I was expecting, perhaps an Anheuser-Busch flag soaring high above the field that could be seen from miles away, or maybe I was expecting large concrete grain elevators lining the highway that donned the Anheuser-Busch symbol. But there was none of that. Rather, we were greeted by Clark Hamilton, a longtime local farmer, who had all of the charm and work ethic I’d come to admire about American farmers, having grown up on a dairy farm myself.

Barley farm for beer in Idaho

Clark took us on a walk through the barley fields and let us climb into the combine harvester, giving us the 4-1-1 on the growth and harvesting of barley at his farm. Here, I learned that he supplies approximately 250,000 bushels of barley to Anheuser-Busch. For a point of reference, 1 bushel is equal to 64 pints. Needless to say, that’s a helluva lot of barley.

What brought all of this home was moments later when we had a long table dinner in the barley field lead by Deana Brower of nearby Diablas Kitchen. A number of the dishes we had featured barley, from the mixed greens salad with strawberries, raspberries, barley, quinoa, and Bud Light lime vinaigrette to tri-tip topped with sherry and thyme mushrooms with barley and asparagus – All the while drinking a Goose Island IPA. Now talk about farm-to-table.

This all continued to come full circle shortly after our lunch in the barley field when we were in Deana’s kitchen in Idaho Falls, where she taught us how to make a beer and barley creamy risotto (click here for my barley risotto recipe). Much of the beer and food we enjoyed, and even made ourselves, that afternoon had first started in the very barley fields we had been standing in.

These are the stories that you don’t get from the Super Bowl commercials, Bud Bowl, Clydesdales and other visuals that are associated with the traditional beer culture of America. Yet without that history, backstory and importance of ingredients like barley, those things don’t even exist. Needless to say, I walked away from our barley field trip with a greater appreciation and understanding of beer in America. Also, I walked away very, very full.