The Orkney Islands are breath-taking for many reasons. There is abundant marine and avian wildlife on display as well as the oldest and best-preserved Neolithic sites in Europe. However, Orkney plays host to something more subtle but just as fascinating, the Bere strain of barley (pronounced bear). The archaic type of barley is very distinctive as it stands tall, but this is not always the case. The strain is renowned to lodge, meaning it bends over near the base making it very hard to harvest and this trait is mainly caused by the winds sweeping across the exposed terrain. Despite this, it is one of the only strains of barley that will ripen in such an extreme environment that has a very short grow season.
For at least the last 1000 years, bere barley has been growing in Orkney and it suspected to have grown there for far longer, possibly as early as 4000BC and the introduction of agriculture. It is the oldest barley being cultivated in the UK and up there with the oldest strains grown across Europe.
Bere is known as a landrace, meaning it has gradually evolved over time to adapt to the local growing conditions, with the help of generations of farmers hand picking the best seeds from the best plants of recent yields. In Orkeny bere grows very quickly during the longer summer days and ripens three weeks before modern strains even though it is planted later. The bere strain is also known to tolerate a whole host of poor-quality soils.
Despite this, until 20 years ago it was virtually non-existent with less than 10 hectares of it in Scotland at the start of the 21st century. This was due to the modern strains that have been scientifically bred to be far higher yielding, such as Concerto and Odyssey.
The initial revival of bere came from the baking industry, with a watermill making biscuits and bread with it. However, the whisky market has played a huge part in the large-scale revival of bere barley. In the early 1800’s bere was commonplace during the Campbeltown boom but today the front runner using bere is the Bruichladdich distillery. Other distilleries such as Springbank also experiment with the strain.
Bere is an expensive barley to use to start with, but factor in the yield being a lot smaller paired with the negative effect of lodging and the costs start to climb even higher. It is said to be more than twice as expensive as regular malt. These are seen as minor issues though as the point of bere barley is for its unique flavour and not yield size. To the experienced whisky drinker, the difference would be quite noticeable even after a long maturation process. The characteristic of bere based Scotch tends to be a very well-rounded sweetness.