Why Chevalier Malt?

It’s Chevalier all Over Again

Chevalier malt (sometimes spelled Chevallier but spelling is optional here) is a currently fashionable choice for historical brewing recreation. This is due to the welcome revival of the seed, a story told many times now, Martyn Cornell’s 2013 account here will illuminate. It emerged early in the 1800s, not a cross but a landrace or traditional variety.

See also this page from Crisp Maltsters advertising its Chevallier Heritage product.

Long-lived E.S. Beaven, maltster and plant breeder, cross-pollinated two barleys to form Plumage Archer in 1905, whence further crosses were developed for enhanced characteristics. Plumage Archer derived from a Danish variety, Plumage, crossed to an old English barley, Archer.

So Chevalier has an appeal as a presumed, pre-cross-pollinated exemplar of British malt. Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that it was certainly dominant before WW I in British barley agriculture. In a 1936 article for the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Barley for Brewing Since 1886, E.S. Beaven reviewed its origins and history. He estimated its production reached at least 80% of the barley crop in the 1800s.

That is unquestionably high, but a few points.

20% was left to other varieties, including even some native six-row barley as Beaven explains, and the rest two-row varieties of which the Archer would be an example. Therefore, a recreation made today of an 1800s style that doesn’t employ Chevalier is hardly ahistorical.

More important, barley was frequently imported by maltsters, even before the passage of the Free Mash Tun law in 1880. That law changed the basis of beer taxation, permitted use of cereal adjuncts, and facilitated non-traditional malts in brewing. Beaven writes:

There appears to be a prevalent idea in some quarters that the use of imported barley for brewing in Great Britain has largely increased in recent years. But in many years before 1886 British maltsters and brewers purchased large quantities of imported barley. They did so whenever, in consequence of bad harvest conditions, there was a shortage of sound native barley. I have no doubt that these bad harvests were more frequent in the eighties and nineties of last century than since… I cannot recall any other such bad harvest as that of 1879. In that year much barley was lying in the fields in November, fit only for pig food, and from my old “Bought Barley” book I see that 75 per cent, of the barley we steeped in 1879-1880 was foreign—mostly Danish; imported in small schooner cargoes of about 1,000 quarters each to Weymouth; with some French from the Saumur district, and a little from the Saale district, now part of Czecho-Slovakia…. All this was two-rowed (H. distichum) barley, then and afterwards often called “Chevalier” to distinguish it from the thinner six-rowed (H. vulgare and H. hexastichum) kinds. From the Board of Trade returns of imports for the five years, 1881-85, I estimate that the average use of imported barley for brewing was about 25 per cent, mainly of Chevalier type from Denmark, France and mid-European countries; but increasingly of the six-rowed type from Mediterranean ports. At the time that our survey commences [1886] the use of this type of barley was fairly well established and many British brewers had begun to use a proportion of it. Up to the early nineties nearly all the imports of six-rowed barley were from Mediterranean ports, notably from Smyrna. Since that time Chevalier Californian and Chilian, also two-row Danish and mid-European barleys have been imported in limited quantities from time to time;

Third, imported two-row barley was often loosely termed Chevalier, especially the Danish barley that is probably in Plumage Archer’s bloodline. Beaven goes on to explain that a “Chevalier” Californian barley and later a six-row type especially favoured by British brewers (probably the famous Bay Barley) were regular additions to a mix of barleys malted for U.K. beer.

Some of this crop was probably seeded from English Chevalier, but whether all was is unclear. My reading suggests the Danish Chevalier was from English stock, see here in William Saunders’ 1890 Barley.

In any case, Chevalier grown in foreign climates would have acquired different characteristics (moisture, nitrogen, kernel size, etc.).

Chevalier was not, in other words, so singular that its name couldn’t be used to describe the same barley of foreign growth or (likely) different lineage. These were often blended with English barleys for malting well before the Free Mash Tun law.

The Fuller Past Masters recreation series, now approaching a dozen beers, used Plumage Archer for the 1891 XX Strong Ale and I believe the 1893 Double Stout. The stout was superb, one of the best I’ve ever had and firmly in the tradition of Sinebrychoff Stout or Carnegie Porter, porters of deep authenticity that deliver the roasty quality in a non-acerbic way.

The XX pleased much less, but whether this is due to Plumage Archer or other factors in the brewing I can’t say.

I don’t think I’ve actually had a beer made from Chevalier. I thought earlier I had but it was the Fuller XX Strong Ale and it used Plumage Archer. Online reports suggest a richer character possibly than Maris Otter, with a slightly higher finishing gravity and higher protein content. Some reports mention a longer than usual maturation time is needed to avoid a raw, unfinished character.

Adjustments in mashing temperature can probably even out the gravity difference. At least one report, see here in December, 2016 by a homebrewer, “bierhaus15”, suggests the difference in IPA is not detectable due to the high hopping rate. Relatively low attenuations for pale ale, particular relevant for IPA recreations, would further reduce any distinctiveness from the malt.

The homebrewer comments that he felt the malt showed more in his 8% strong ale with a cocoa, earthy character, yet he used some roasted and crystal malt in the recipe, so I wonder if that was the source of much of the flavour.

He does recognize a particular quality to Chevalier but states it is similar to floor-malted English malt, of which Maris Otter among others would be an example.

These comments on Untappd are interesting on Govinda, an IPA recently brewed with Chevalier. Most seem to focus on the hop aspects although one refers to “sumptuous” malt. See also here from The Cheshire Brewhouse which issued the beer.

The message I get is, the malt is distinctive in some beers under some circumstances, and at least in part shows traits of other floor-malts hitherto available.

For his part, Beaven in 1936 hints at superior organoleptic qualities:

It is fairly certain that before 1886, 80 percent, (or more) of the barley grown in England was the progeny of one plant discovered growing in the garden of one Andrews, employed by the Rev. Dr. Chevalier, at Aspall Hall in Suffolk, in the year 1823. It is not on record that the reverend gentleman himself ever made a profit out of his barley. However that may be, no race of any species of any farm plant ever before, or since, spread so extensively as this. The barley was commonly well and truly called “Chevalier*—(vide Oxford English Dictionary); it went into all the best of the beer in England for about 100 years. It is my belief that the best samples of Chevalier barley grain (but perhaps not the general run of them) were as good malting and brewing material as any we have ever seen since—perhaps better from the point of view of the best brewers. Certainly these brewers thought so, and no one doubts that they knew what was best for their beer.

But again, this is only in the best of the barley known as Chevalier, not the “general run”. There are so many imponderables that we can never know if someone’s brewing of Maris Otter, Plumage Archer, or Chevalier of 2018 is similar to what Beaven considered really good.

All we can do is try, and we should. As I suggested yesterday, it’s the cultural exercise that is important: stimulating, creative, fun. And it offers potentially some interesting beer at the other end of the pipe, quite literally.

Finally, it is useful to remember that what previous generations thought important to breeding and malting quality had relatively little to do with flavour. Consider this article from 2005 by Peter Brookes in Brewery History entitled Barley Breeding and Development in the U.K., an Historical Perspective, especially this extract:

The general objectives of barley breeders can be summarised as (Briggs, 1998):

  • Improved grain yields as expressed in tonnes/hectare
  • Shorter and stiffer straws so the plant is resistant to ‘lodging’ (collapsing in the field prior to harvesting)
  • Ears that do not shatter so can be effectively mechanically harvested
  • Earlier ripening to avoid the vagaries of Autumn harvest weather
  • Greater disease resistance
  • Greater uniformity

To these general objectives can be added more specific requirements of the maltster, brewer and distiller (for a general discussion of malting to provide background to this discussion see Briggs, 1998):

  • Increased yield of soluble extract (the so called hot water extract) so that a greater volume of beer or spirit can be produced from a given weight of malt. This partly manifests as the propensity to yield lower nitrogen grains (hence higher levels of carbohydrate)
  • Sufficient dormancy to prevent preharvest sprouting of the grains in the ear, but not extreme dormancy that prevents the barley form being malted for several months after harvest
  • Rapid germination of the grain under malting conditions with the minimum of dry matter loss and the development of a sufficient complement of enzymes
  • Minimised content of substances that will give problems in subsequent brewing and distilling processes such as β-glucans (gums that can cause filtration problems) and proanthocyanins (constituents of beer hazes)

To provide all these characteristics in a variety of barley is a formidable and laborious task!

Of the nine breeding objectives noted, not one addresses flavour. Had you added taste suitability as a tenth factor, I think Brookes would have thrown up his hands. This reflected the commercial reality of previous generations.

What we are doing now, to recreate the past and unearth new and fascinating tastes long buried in dusty records and obscure seed banks, would have bemused the practical men of previous times.

I’d like to think E.S. Beaven would be on our side though: his essay shows the ponderings of a well-educated, inquiring mind, possibly with a romantic bent.

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