Victorian ale back on tap after Norwich scientists revive heritage brewing barley

PUBLISHED: 09:20 12 April 2013 | UPDATED: 09:20 12 April 2013

Dr Chris Ridout has revived the classic Victorian brewing barley 'Chevallier' at John Innes.  Photo: Bill Smith

Dr Chris Ridout has revived the classic Victorian brewing barley 'Chevallier' at John Innes. Photo: Bill Smith

Archant © 2013

Norwich ale drinkers will get their first chance in 100 years to sample a batch of a Victorian beer – thanks to the scientific revival of a heritage brewing barley.

Researchers at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Colney have grown the classic Chevallier variety from ancient seeds stored at the centre’s genetic resources unit, as part of a project to evaluate its characteristics.

Historic records indicate that the barley produced premium quality malt and good yields before it fell from favour among modern farmers and brewers.

But the scientists have discovered that Chevallier also had valuable resistance to the Fusarium grain disease which is a concern to today’s malting industry – and they are looking at ways to cross-breed this characteristic into modern varieties.

Half an acre of the Victorian barley was grown last year which was then floor-malted by Crisp Malting Group at Great Ryburgh, near Fakenham, and brewed by the Stumptail Brewery from Great Dunham, near Swaffham.

The resulting bitter will be on sale next Friday at the Duke of Wellington pub in Norwich – with the launch timed to coincide with the Annual General Meeting of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), which takes place at St Andrews Hall from April 19 to 21.

Dr Chris Ridout, who is leading the research project, said: “This single variety dominated beer production for nearly 100 years. It is quite a tall variety which stopped being used when we had increasing mechanisation and people got interested in breeding new varieties, so it became very old-fashioned. As the acreage declined, it became obsolete.

“However, even as the barley was declining, the beer still won lots of competitions. So there must have been something special about its flavour and we wanted to find out what it was.”

The nut-brown ale is described as having a rich malty flavour, a lasting bitter finish and an ABV of 4.7pc.

Dougie Clarke, manager at the Duke of Wellington pub on Waterloo Road, said his customers were always eager to try something different.

“We get beers from all over the country, so this is something extra to add to our portfolio,” he said. “We get lots of customers here for real ale, so it will be interesting to see what they think.”

Dr Ridout has now registered Chevallier as a conservation variety and has received a £250k grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council (BBSRC) to explore the commercial potential of new varieties derived from heritage barleys.

The John Innes Centre will compare crops grown in an intensive agriculture environment, with Chevallier plants grown in organic conditions at the Gressenhall Museum of Rural Life, near Dereham.

“What the grant is about is to fully evaluate the malt and whether there is a market for it,” said Dr Ridout. “It comes at a time of high consumer interest in the provenance of food and its heritage. People want to know the history behind the stuff they are eating and drinking, and also the passion behind it.”

The barley seeds were part of a collection of 10,500 accessions – or lines – stored at the JIC, dating back as far as the 1890s.

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