St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

The Adventures of Johnny Barleycorn

“Despotic the new regime was undoubtedly from the start.”

This is a sentence that I have carried with me since grade 10, and it illustrates a point that I had quite forgotten until I got into brewing school. Textbooks are frequently poorly written. In the case of my grade 10 history textbook, it may actually have been edited by Yoda. One of the main difficulties I’ve had in learning about beer is that outside of some genuinely entertaining authors (Pete Brown, Randy Mosher, Charlie Papazian, Charles Bamforth) is that there’s a disconnect between the amount of information on offer and the manner in which it is conveyed to the reader.

It has to do with the amount of detailed factual information you need to understand if you’re going to be a brewer. If you wanted to know everything to do with the barley plant, you’d need a certain amount of fine detail regarding the parts of the plant, reproductive methods, germination, steeping, kilning and storage. Now, it’s great to have all of the facts at your fingertips, but unless you’re able to impose some kind of narrative structure on them, it’s unlikely to help you in any significant way. I know myself well enough to know that rote memorization certainly didn’t help me in university Latin. The puella may well be in the tabernae, but I’m not much for declension. I need a gimmick to remember that stuff.

I remember doing some research on Robbie Burns for an Ola Dubh tasting at the Monk’s Table, and I remember coming across his poem, John Barleycorn. Now, it’s a fine poem. If you want to go ahead and read it out loud, I suggest trying to do it as Billy Connolly. It sort of anthropomorphizes barley and makes it a bit of a rebel hero, imposing a narrative structure on the entire process of brewing. It’s not all that helpful with details for a number of reasons:

1)      They didn’t know a huge number of details when Burns was staggering about writing poems and getting barmaids in trouble. People knew how to make beer out of Barley, but they didn’t know how exactly the chemical processes worked.

2)      The chemical processes are not conducive to rhyming. In fact, the only rhyme I can think of for Gibberellic Acid is Liberal Antacid, and I’m not entirely sure how you’d shoehorn that in to an anthropomorphized barley bildungsroman. Go ahead and try to think of a rhyme for Scutellar Epithelium that is in any way relevant to that context. If you come up with one, you may want to put a velvet rope around your house and charge admission. If you can figure out a way to make it fit into iambic pentameter, we’ll be saving your brain in a jar.

So, how do you explain the process without being tedious and boring and have people avoid you at parties? I don’t know, but it’s worth a shot.


Johnny Barleycorn was from a very small town in Saskatchewan. All of his friends were as well.

There was not a great deal to do in town. The only identifying landmark was the old grain silo. The barleycorns didn’t go to school, since there was not a great deal that they had to know about the world. Even if they had gone to school, they would not have been able to compete against other schools at intramural sports. The barleycorns, as a people, were quite tiny. They don’t make sports equipment in that size. Also, they didn’t have legs.

Even if they had had a school, they wouldn’t even have had a prom. The barleycorns were pretty largely gender neutral, which made crowning a Prom Queen a very confusing process. Eventually they decided not to bother.

Upon reaching the age of maturity, Johnny looked like this:

Deep down in his heart, Johnny only wanted one thing. He wanted to have a nice little family of his own, in the same row that he had grown up in. Imagine only wanting to reproduce (for some of you, that should not be too hard).

Little did Johnny know that that wasn’t going to happen. Mean Mr. Maltster had other plans for Johnny. He was an extraordinarily nasty and foul smelling person, who carried a very large rake around with him. Mr. Maltster had a number of friends who really enjoyed beer, and he had found that one of the best ways to make beer was to use barley.

Mr. Malster abducted Johnny one day and put him to work in what he claimed was a Spa. Johnny didn’t know about slave labour, so he assumed that Mr. Maltster was acting in good faith. “Do I get benefits? When’s lunch? What about my work/life balance? I’d really like to have a nice family of my own some day.” said Johnny.

“Sure, kid. That’ll all happen.” Said Mr. Maltster, puffing away on his cigar. “This is a great place to work. We’ve even got this Jacuzzi. Why don’t you hop in and relax, while we find you a desk.”

Johnny hopped in the Jacuzzi. The water was just the right temperature for Johnny; somewhere between 16 and 20 degrees Celsius. What he didn’t know was that it was laced with Gibberellic Acid.

Can you say Gibberellic Acid, children? I knew that you could.

It wasn’t like other kinds of Acid. It didn’t make Johnny all strung out or make him see music and hear colours like LSD would have. It didn’t really burn him, like sulphuric acid would have. This acid changed Johnny’s insides. It was a miracle acid that was discovered by the Japanese in the 1930’s.

It made Johnny produce enzymes and changed his insides, so that he was ready to reproduce. He suddenly had expanding rootlets growing out of his proximal end. You might know what that’s like, if you’ve seen the magazines your daddy hides in the garage.

See the Rootlets, children? This is HAPPY Barley.

“This is great,” thought Johnny. “Hey, Mr. Maltster! I’m reproducing! I’m going to go back to Saskatchewan and find a nice field to bury myself in!”

Mr. Maltster cackled maniacally. “Not so fast, kid. I guess you didn’t read your contract. You’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re going to transfer you to another department. In the mean time, why don’t you go have a seat in the sauna. Take a schvitz.”

Johnny didn’t really like the look of the sauna. It had a weird smell to it, and reminded him a little of that time he had burned some toast. The sauna seemed to be getting closer. Johnny couldn’t read, because he never went to school. If he had been able to read, he would have wondered why sauna was spelled K-I-L-N.

The next thing Johnny knew, he was getting uncomfortably hot. It was so hot in the sauna that Johnny was drying out. It was so hot that he was changing colour. It got to be nearly 100 degrees Celsius in the sauna. Johnny was really starting to have suspicions about Mr. Maltster. He didn’t know that Mr. Maltster was trying to remove his ability to reproduce while retaining all of the sugars that the germination process produced. Johnny generally believed that people were good.

That’s when the sauna started shaking. It shook so hard that Johnny’s rootlets fell off. “Oh no! Now I’ll never be able to reproduce!” Johnny cursed the day he met Mr. Maltster.

Mr. Maltster showed a certain amount of concern. “Hey, kid. I tell you what. That’s a terrible deculming accident that happened there. I feel bad. Why don’t you hop in this sack. It’s specially designed for grains like you. I’ll ship you back to Saskatchewan and you can live out your days on disability.”

Johnny was relieved. The sack was loaded on to a truck and he was on his way. It was very dark  and Johnny couldn’t see out of the sack, but if he could he might have wondered why Saskatchewan was spelled “Very Large Brewing Company INC” on the sign at the destination.

Finally, when the sack was opened, Johnny was put into a grain hopper with a lot of other barleycorns. He remembered some of them from Saskatchewan. “Hi Susie,” said Johnny. Susie was apparently dealing badly with the trauma induced by the sauna and was not responsive.

“What’s that noise?” said Johnny. He couldn’t see because of all of the other barleycorns. The mechanical sound was getting louder and closer. There was a terrible moment of panic when Johnny realized he was going to be ground up in to little tiny bits.

Oh, NO!

Look out, Johnny!

Can you fall to your knees and scream "Noooooooooooooo!" children? I knew that you could.

Oh, no. Poor Johnny.

Johnny’s shattered corpse was submerged in hot liquid and all of his starch was extracted. Eventually, Mr. Brewer would use liquid to make beer. Before that happened, though, all that remained of Johnny was raked out of the Mash Tun and dumped unceremoniously into a huge bucket. Eventually, he was fed to a smelly cow.

This is a cow. Just consider yourselves lucky this isn't a story about milk.

Isn’t that terrible, children? This all happens because your mommy and daddy like beer! This would never have happened to Johnny if they liked club soda.

Aren’t you glad you’re not a barleycorn?

3 Thoughts on “The Adventures of Johnny Barleycorn

  1. Kevin Somerville on September 27, 2011 at 5:15 pm said:


  2. Well done and very funny. A great way of explaining barley’s role in the brewing process.

  3. Kevin Somerville on October 27, 2013 at 7:06 pm said:

    I am making this an assigned reading.

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