Arctic Barley

Is it possible to produce Whisky made from Arctic barley?

(ONGOING PROJECT)

Project start – spring 2019

In Northern Norway, Barley was the most important grain until the Second World War. Barley can withstand the harsh climate here north and has been an important trade route for us for hundreds of years. This is documented through NIBIO/Holt Research Farm’s work.
The main aim of the project is to produce the world’s northernmost Barley and/or malt, for whisky production, in collaboration with local farmers in Northern Norway, research expertise from UiT / Holt research farm and expertise from the Scottish Whisky Industry.

We received funding from Innovation Norway and SkatteFunn (Research Council of Norway) to conduct the project.

The first phase was finding farmers willing to contribute to the project. We were able to find three farmers in the Lyngen area. One of them had previously sown barley on one of his fields. The Barley we chose was “Brage” and “Floy”, which were sown at three different locations in early May 2019.

Jægervatnet / Arctic Lyngen

Barley planted too shallow

Crows ate it all.

Summer 2019 – Growing and first test batch

The barley was sown in 3 different locations on the Lyngen peninsula. However, on one of the fields, the local crows discovered the taste of barley, and ate all of it! The two other fields yielded some barley, just enough for further test purposes.

We were lucky enough to get some barley, which was grown in 2018. We took it to Mack microbrewery in Tromsø, milled it and brewed a small batch using Mack’s equipment.

We used a very old yeast-strand, called “KVEIK”, for fermenting our wash. This yeast is a very old and traditional farmers yeast, which has been used for almost 1,000 years for brewing beer in Norway.

After a week of fermentation, the beer/wash was ready. We reached an alcohol level of 4,6 % abv. The wash was then distilled twice and put on a small test cask (3 l.) at ABV 63%. This is the “Lyngen cask”.

Second test batch, January 2020

Second batch of Arctic barley was fermented at Mack microbrewery in Tromsø. This batch was made from 320 kg of Barley from Alta (210 km east of the distillery). The wash produced from 100% Arctic unmalten barley (Heder, 6 Row).

We did a relatively long fermentation with Norwegian Kveik yeast @30°C.

The taste of the new make was very sweet, with lot’s of mandarin aroma.

The new make was laid in a 50 l. VO cask at 63% ABV.

Growing and harvesting, 2020

Despite a very hard winter (snow would not leave the ground until june), the “Heder” barley was put in the ground on 3 different locations in Arctic Norway

Harvesting the 2020 barley

The last year’s we’ve experimented with barley varieties that withstand the harsh Arctic conditions that we can grow in our backyard. After lots of fallen stems and losses to the raven we’ve settled on a variety called Héder. Short sturdy stems with a quick growth during our very short frost free season exposed almost constantly with daylight.

We experienced different growing patterns in the different fields, and were sceptical towards the result. But 2020 proved to be a very good arctic summer, with plenty of sunny days, good temperatures and some necessary rain showers. Actually in August there was an intensive period of rain which we feared would ruin the whole harvest. But when we reached the end of September the barley was matured and ready for harvesting.

We did the harvesting late september 2020. It was a fantastic day and we were really happy with the results. We were so fortunate to have an experienced barley farmer, Benjamin Hykkerud, as a mentor during the harvest day.

We have invested in machinery and are now the proud owners of two harvesters since no one in hours drive owns any that we could have rented. We collaborate with farmers to grow the grain. A learning phase for everyone.

 

Processing the 2020 barley (2021)

Turning the barley into malt is another tricky part that involves deep biochemistry. Héder is not the easiest variety to turn into malt. Long dormancy and slow germination is time consuming with plenty of losses due to immature kernels. Tyson, our friend at Bonsak Malt down the coast is the perfect guy for such a task. Tyson supported Benedict on his work carried out at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh as a supervisor and took on the task to turn our local harvest into malt. A very manual labour especially as floor malting requires a lot of regular turning by hand. No wonder those shoulders that do it are referred to as monkey shoulders.

As Benedict is our Arctic mad fermentationist this special batch was of course not left to some boring distillers yeast. Benedict started collecting and archiving along with his friend Didrik Willadsen original Kveik cultures from Norwegian farms that are listed under Garsols Kveik registry.

https://www.garshol.priv.no/download/farmhouse/kveik.html

Original and self propagated Kveik cultures and not simply one isolated strain made commercially available. Over the next few years we will brew each year’s harvest with a different farmhouse Kveik until we find the best one for us. For our first batch (2019 harvest) we decided to ferment with the Hornindal Farm culture as it contains 8 different yeast strains along with some bacteria which resulted in a severely tropical fruit rich new-make spirit, which is now resting in a refill solera sherry hogshead. All of our heritage series vintages will be maturing in refill casks as we don’t want to run the risk of masking any fine flavours with those derived from the casks previous containments.

The yield is terrible. A tonne of barley harvested in 2019 made 810kg of malt which resulted in 216 litres of new make @ 63.5% abv. That’s 4 times less than from commercially available malt. But one thing’s for sure. It’s at least 4 times as potent.