Every Fact about Barley that you Could Imagine

In this blog we’ll show you the characteristics of barley (both the fruit and the plant), the main types, its properties, history, main exporters and importers, how it is cultivated, and some products made from this cereal. Don’t miss it!  

What is barley and what are its characteristics?    

Scientific nameHordeum vulgare
Common nameBarley
Place of OriginEgypt (see barley history section for more information).
HabitatTemperate and low temperatures. Shallow and stony soils.
DistributionEurope, Oceania, North America, South America and Asia (see section on top barley exporters in the world for more information).

Characteristics of barley 

The common name of the plant and the fruit (barley) is the same, therefore, they share the same scientific (Hordeum vulgare). It belongs to the genus of grasses and comes from wild barley, which is scientifically known as Hordeum spontaneum.

This plant has a stem that can measure from 50 centimeters to 1 meter in height. Each stem has a spike and the number of stems varies according to each crop.

It produces flowers in the form of spikes, from which the grain we consume is obtained. Its grains are practically minute, on average the smallest is about 6 millimeters long and the largest is about 9.5 millimeters. In terms of width, they can measure between 1.5 and 4 millimeters. The color of its grain can range from a whitish tone to a light brown or yellow.

Its leaves are flat, long and green. They measure between 5 and 15 millimeters wide on average.

Types of barley 

Barley varieties are divided into 2 groups, the first group is classified into winter and spring barleys, while the second is categorized according to the number of rows of grain it has, these rows are known as races. Within these varieties, there are a large number of subtypes that we don’t have much information about. For this reason, we’ll only mention the main varieties that you’ll see below.

Winter barley 

They receive this specific name because they are resistant to frosts down to -15°C (-15°F). They have either cylindrical spikes with 6 races or flat spikes with 2 races. In countries with seasons, winter barley is sown at the end of September or at the beginning of October so that they are well settled before winter. In non-seasonal areas, this variety is sown in low-temperature soils.

Spring barley 

Unlike winter varieties, these are sensitive to frost and have a shorter flowering time. They are sown from February to March.

Malting barley or two-row barley  

Its scientific name is Hordeum distichon. In this spike, after maturing, only the central spikelet remains. This variety is the oldest, as archaeological traces of it have been found that are nearly 9000 years old, and is the most similar to wild barley, which has the same number of grain rows.

It is known as malting barley because it is the most commonly used for beer brewing due to its larger number of grains which, in turn, are more uniform in size.

On the other hand, the varieties to be distilled for beer production must have regular germination, and be low in protein but with a high amount of diastatic power. The diastatic term refers to how active the enzymes in the malt are in converting complex carbohydrates into fermentable sugars.

Four-row barley 

Its scientific name is Hordeum tetrastichon. This variety retains 2 lateral spikelets and 2 grains per rachis node.

Horse barley or six-row barley 

Its scientific name is Hordeum hexastichon. This barley has 3 spikelets, so it has 3 grains per rachis node. It is said that this variety is the youngest since its origin dates back approximately 6000 years. There are 2 possible places from which it comes from: Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Barley with rows
De Xianmin Chang – Own work by Xianmin.Chang@orkney.uhi.ac.uk; changxianmin2002@yahoo.co.uk, Public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5512681

In the image, you can see some barley spikes with 2 and 6 races respectively.

Properties and benefits of barley 

Nutritional profile of barley 

Check out the nutritional table of barley per 100g, taken from Vegaffinity.

CompositionQuantity (gr)CDR(%)
MineralsQuantity (mg)CDR(%)
VitaminsQuantity (mg)CDR(%)
Vitamin A00%
Vitamin B10.3125.8%
Vitamin B20.17.7%
Vitamin B37.80%
Vitamin B1200%
Vitamin C00%

5 properties of barley that you should take advantage of 

Improves intestinal health 

Due to its high amount of fiber, barley boosts toxins elimination in our body and, conversely, its fiber serves as fuel for the good bacteria needed by the intestine. These bacteria together with the fiber have the function of producing butyric acid, which is responsible for the proper functioning of the cells in the intestine. This was confirmed by Advances in Nutrition.

Helps the colon 

In relation to the previous point, your colon will be grateful that your intestine is healthy because the fecal matter will spend less time in this organ and, therefore, the organism will spend most of the time clean. It also reduces the chances of getting hemorrhoids and colon cancer.

Reduces the likelihood of gallstones 

Barley can prevent the presence of gallstones because of its amount of insoluble fiber. In the same way, this fiber helps to decrease the secretion of bile acid and this makes positive things happen such as increasing insulin sensitivity and reducing the number of triglycerides in the body.

Helpful against osteoporosis 

Consuming barley will improve your overall bone health because it contains copper and phosphorus, elements that are known to prevent osteoporosis and, in case you already have it, barley can be an antidote to greatly diminish and soothe its symptoms, especially barley grass juice because it has 11 times more calcium than milk.

Supports the immune system 

This food is rich in vitamin C, so much so that it has twice as much of this vitamin as an orange has. Vitamin C keeps the immune system strong, making it less likely that you will suffer from colds and flu. It can also help treat chronic diseases, according to a study released by Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity.

History and origin of barley 

The cultivation of barley has its origin in ancient Egypt. It was a relevant food in this region for its economic development, for its direct consumption, and for the production of beer. Other theories about its history are found in the Exodus of the bible where it is mentioned in the story of the plagues of Egypt.

On the other hand, the Romans and Greeks also knew this cereal and used it to make bread. This food represented the basis of the Roman gladiators’ food. Calcined residues of Stone Age cakes made from barely ground barley and wheat grains have been found in Switzerland.

The history of barley also includes some classism since, for many centuries in England, not all classes could consume the same type of cereals either in their pure form or in other foods, for example, barley bread was for the lower class while wheat bread was exclusive to the upper class, something that occurred until the 16th century. As the use of wheat and oats became more widespread, all classes began to use it and the use of barley to make bread came to an end.

Global barley industry 

Know the main exporters and importers of barley in the world.   

Top barley exporters in the world  

In the following chart, you can see the 10 countries that exported the most barley by 2020 according to FAO.

PositionCountryExports in tons
Argentina  2’233.130
United Kingdom1’574.932
10°Kazakhstan  980.295

On the other hand, FAO also provides information on which countries have the highest monetary volume in exports, specifically in U.S. dollars in 2020. Let’s see which ones they are:

PositionCountryExports in tons
Argentina  2’233.130
United Kingdom1’574.932
10°Kazakhstan  980.295

Top barley importers in the world 

In 2020, $7.6M in barley was imported around the world. The top importers of barley according to FAO for this year are:

  1. China: 8’079,498.
  2. Saudi Arabia: 2’898.427.
  3. Netherlands: 2’629,502.  
  4. Belgium: 1’942,155
  5. Germany: 1’488,943
  6. Japan: 1’209,211
  7. Morocco: 1’126,336
  8. Tunisia: 957,620
  9. Turkey: 889,319
  10. Algeria: 840,320

How is barley cultivated?   

To grow this cereal there are a series of requirements that must be taken into account. Next, we’ll show you what they are:  


Fertile soils are ideal for this crop, but if it is not possible to plant in these soils, it is also possible to opt for stony and shallow soils so that the plant has enough water, especially when it begins to develop, this depth should be between 9 and 12 centimeters. If the soil is shallower than this, it is possible to use a light layer of soil and fill the superficial spaces.

On the other hand, barley does not do well with very clayey soils, but it has no difficulty in tolerating excessively saline soils. It grows in a pH range of 6.5 to 8.0.


This cereal needs a minimum temperature of 6°C to germinate, about 16°C to flower and 20°C to mature. Barley is so tolerant to low temperatures that it can withstand temperatures as low as -10°C (-4°F).

Barley sowing method 

Moment to start sowing 

As we have mentioned, there is winter and spring barley which must be sown at different times of the year. If you want to sow winter barley, it is best to do it in autumn and if it is spring barley, it can be started in February or March, where the season to which its name refers begins. This is done so that each variety grows in the climate that best suits its requirements.

Steps to sow the seeds 

  1. It is advisable to germinate the seeds with fertile soil inside a container.
  2. When sowing the seeds it is likely that not all of them will germinate; only 3 seeds out of 10 seeds, for example, are likely to germinate. Because of this, it is advisable to plant several seeds to increase the number of germinations.
  3. The seeds should be hydrated by soaking them for a few hours.
  4. When the first sprout grows, the seeds have to be removed from the container and placed in the soil.
  5. Holes about 3 or 4 centimeters deep are needed to plant the seeds in the soil.
  6. Once the seeds are in, cover the sowing holes with some soil.
  7. Finally, water carefully, without exceeding the amount of water.


Barley must be watered 2 to 3 times a day after sowing for it to begin to germinate. Irrigation has to be light because, otherwise, it may remove some seeds from the soil. When it finishes germinating in about 7 to 10 days, it is advisable to water once a day using about 6mm of water. This should be done for the next 2 to 3 weeks.

Once the barley has finished developing, you can reduce irrigation to once a week, but it should remain light. If it rains during the week, you have to wait until the following week to water again. You should stop watering the crop in spring because the climatic conditions of this season will be sufficient to keep it moist.

Harvesting barley 

If the barley is golden in color, it is ready to be harvested. Harvesting is usually done in late June and early July in countries such as Spain and is done earlier than wheat harvesting because barley matures much faster.

Post-harvesting barley 

To preserve barley, it is necessary to store it in clean, low-humidity, low-temperature spaces such as silos, which are specialized grain storage facilities used to avoid insects and pests as much as possible. Under such conditions, barley can be preserved for about 2 years. Ventilation is important to keep the place at a low temperature.

Uses and products made from barley 

Barley is used for brewing beer, so it is most commonly consumed in this form, which is why it can be said that it is consumed in a processed form. Certain products made from barley have also been launched on the market, such as the ones we’ll show you below.

Industrial products made from barley 


This is an alcoholic beverage that has not been distilled, with a bitter taste and is manufactured with germinated barley seeds and other cereals containing starch that are fermented with yeast in water. This drink is often flavored with some plants such as hops. It is known as the most consumed alcoholic beverage around the world and the most consumed beverage after tea, coffee, and water.



Whisky is an alcoholic beverage obtained by distilling the malt that has been fermented from some cereals such as barley, rye, corn or wheat. It is then aged in barrels made of wood such as white oak. The word whiskey comes from the Irish Gaelicuisce beathadh and the Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, both terms meaning “water of life”.



Like beer and whiskey, this is an alcoholic beverage that has been distilled and tastes mostly of nebrin, which is a fruit that comes from a plant called juniper. Initially, in the Middle Ages, gin was used as an herbal medicine but it evolved over time into a marketable product in the spirits industry as it is today.

From Jon Worth – Flickr: Gin, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18117872


It is a beverage containing carbonated malt. It is prepared with barley, water and hops, as in beer. However, the difference is that the malt is free of alcohol and, therefore, it is drunk like a soda, a soda or a soft drink. In other words, this drink is like a beer that has not been mixed with alcohol. This product can also have a caramel color and cereals such as corn.

Pony malta
By Bavaria – http://www.bavaria.co/, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64932211

Barley grass 

This is the name given to the young barley plant that is green and has no grains yet. It has a nutritional value similar to green leafy vegetables, but the difference is that this herb is more nutrient-dense. Below we’ll show you some nutrients of this herb per 100 grams and in what quantity they are present:

  • 12 mg of sodium
  • 79 g of carbohydrates
  • 452 mg of potassium
  • 17 g of fiber
  • 12 g protein
  • 0.8 g sugar

These 100 grams we are talking about provide 3% calcium, 15% vitamin B6, 19% iron, and 33% magnesium. Barley grass can be found in its original state, in powder or liquid form.

Following you’ll find a list of other products that are also made from barley grass:

  • Flakes
  • Crackers
  • Bread
  • Cereals
  • Flour
  • Pearled barley
  • Caramel malt
  • Toasted malt
  • Malt extract
  • Malt flour


Barley is one of the most important cereals worldwide; it is widely consumed due to its great benefits and the variety of products that can be made with it. We hope this blog has taught you more about barley and that you do not hesitate to consume it in all its presentations.