Harry Harlan: The Godfather of Modern Barley

MarkFarming, History4 Comments

Harry Harlan:

The Godfather of Modern Barley

Written by Mark || 3/22/17

Plant breeders and biologists rarely achieve any celebrity in our culture. This comes as a shock to no one – few people find lab work sexy. But their work is integral to everything that we grow and eat and, of course, brew. In your home brewing, the outcome of a breeder’s work helps you hit a high extract or have a trouble-free sparge. I’d say they deserve a bit more recognition and thanks.

To that end, and to gather some inspiration, I’m going to tell you the story of Harry Harlan, perhaps the first person to devote their entire life work to barley. If you’ve read John Mallett’s book Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse, you may already know a few things about our hero Harry. Mallett devotes a whole chapter to him, whom he appropriately calls “the Indiana Jones of barley,”¹ and recounts many of the stories from Harry’s world travels on the hunt for unique barley varieties.

When I started my own long and winding education on barley and malt, that chapter in Mallett’s book happened to be the very first thing I read. At the time, it seemed like a fun yet irrelevant story: this man travels the world and collects barley seeds. All right, next.

But now, Harry’s drawn me back in, and I’ve seen that his story is a part of a much larger history between plants, humans, and beer. It’s a hopeful story, and one that makes a passionate call for genetic diversity. By picking up where Harry’s story left off, we can rediscover the world’s barleys and use them to build greater diversity in our beers.

Plant Pioneers

Harry came into the world of plant breeding when it was in a very young and dynamic stage. During his graduate work at Kansas State University, he was assigned to study barley in rural Peru for four months in 1913 and 1914. This set him on his life’s trajectory: as Harry confessed, “to my knowledge, I had not seen [barley] before” Peru, but three years later, he was head of the barley project. “We made experts quickly in those days”²(page 4).

Yes, academia was in a very different place than it is now. Not that we know everything these days, but in Harry’s time, there were vast unknowns in his field that infused a spirit of optimism and opportunity into the Bureau of Plant Industry. Harry compares it to the settling of America: “It was young, eager, thirsty for new discoveries”(6).

These energized biologists began to realize the shortcomings in America’s seed stock. Up until that point, there had been very little intention in the great migration of plants and animals between the Old World and the New World. This resulted in a mishmash of species that often did not thrive in their new home.

So these plant pioneers decided to go out with intention and collect seeds from all around the world. They surveyed as extensively as they could, but looked especially to regions of the world that matched the variable American climate. There are large inland areas in Asia that are humid like our Mississippi Valley, and deserts in North Africa that are arid like our Great Plains further west. Those regions held the promise for major crop improvements.

Harry the Traveller

Harry in 1923 before his trip to Ethiopia. Courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives, Jack R. & Harry V. Harlan Papers, RS 8/6/25

Harry was the only person exclusively devoted to studying barley at that time, so of course he was the one chosen to go out and collect the world’s barley. Boy, did he have some tales to tell when he got home.

In his autobiography, One Man’s Life with Barley, Harry puts a bunch of his travel stories down on paper. If you’re hungry for some barley adventure reads, take a look through this digitized copy. There’s some interesting stuff in there. He was traveling at a transformative time, when communications and transportation were connecting isolated parts of the world.

In general, he tells of many foreign peoples welcoming him in as a guest of honor, often in elaborate and baffling ways. He describes feasts and honor guards in Ethiopia, and being greeted at a train station in India by strangers, who “hung wreath after wreath of bela flowers around my neck”(68).

Harry wrote this book out of a need to pass down his rich experience from working with barley for 35 years. To him, the science and the stories were inseparable. Each seed was steeped in its own history. As Harry said, “when we receive a barley from the center of the Gobi desert, what a story lies behind it”(93).

Harry the Breeder

Through his travels, Harry collected seed that had gone through thousands of years of selection. As he said, “we receive the climax of the plant breeding of nature, doubtless aided now and then by the intervention of man. We find it ready at hand in the twentieth century–ready to be subjected to our new knowledge–ready to be studied by men wholly freed from the necessity of other duties”(93).

Until the twentieth century, plant breeding meant selecting and saving the most promising seeds from a field to be planted the following year. Over time, the seed stock would become better and better suited to where it was grown. By Harry’s time, breeders were performing artificial selection, where they would cross two distinct varieties to get a hybrid offspring that had the best traits of both of its parents.

Despite the advancements in artificial breeding and genetics, Harry held a deep respect for all the breeding work that had been done before his time. His predecessors had done the leg work with millennia of selection, and he reaped the benefits of their solid base of genetic material.

In fact, the seeds that Harry collected on his travels have been the genetic foundation from which the university breeding programs of the 20th century drew on. Some are the direct ancestors to the barley in the beers we’re drinking today. Remember to hoist your next pint to Harry.

In his own breeding work, Harry started delving into the world’s barley collection, which had grown to 5000 varieties by the time he was finished. These experiments could become very ambitious in their scale. At one point, he crossed 28 varieties in every possible way, resulting in 378 distinct combinations, an overwhelming quantity that made him “not fit to associate with nice people”(98). But he learned a good deal about those 28 varieties in doing so.

Harry’s son Jack, also a breeder, out in the field. Courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives, Jack R. & Harry V. Harlan Papers, RS 8/6/25

One of Harry’s main frustrations with the breeding world was that there was all that genetic potential out there in those 5000 varieties, but so little known about all but a few. This gave him very little basis to choose the parents in his crosses, and from his previous experiments, he’d determined that “there was no way to appraise them except by trial”(100).

So that’s what he did. Every year, he would cross 100 distinct varieties with 3 of the commonly grown varieties to see if the new ones could add helpful traits. But he needed help: “If the work is to be completed, the aid of more workers must be enlisted. At present it is still in an exploratory stage and will probably remain there until all American breeders realize that our collection constitutes their joint reservoir of the material for the future”(101).

I doubt his project went very far. Since then, breeders have continued to rely on that “joint reservoir” of genetic material, but they haven’t made it as much of a priority to explore the thousands of varieties and fill in our knowledge gaps on them.

A Call for Genetic Diversity

Harry believed that our seed banks are vastly important, and that we need to do a lot more to preserve the genetic heritage that we’ve been gifted by previous generations.

Many of his points foreshadow the arguments made by proponents of genetic diversity today. The world was changing rapidly in Harry’s time, as it is still, and it concerned him that as a result of this turmoil, people were no longer growing some varieties they’d kept going for centuries. He lamented, “valuable genes that may never reoccur are being lost every year”(88). Some day those genes could prove important – he references the hypothetical seed tucked away in China or Nepal that “will one day save the crop of Montana from a disease we have never seen”(89).

One of Harry’s slides showing the diversity in seed shapes. Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

Likewise, what if Maris Otter, a barley variety popular for its flavor in beer, had gone extinct after it fell out of popularity in the 1980s? Many brewers are thankful that it didn’t, and they celebrate its unique success story.

Harry knew that his work collecting seeds was the first crucial step to preserving genetic diversity:

“The importance of plant exploration is not fully realized by most people. The future of millions of farmers is tied up with every man who goes on a collecting trip. He may not bring back anything that is directly suitable in our fields. It may not even be used by this generation, but we must collect for the future breeders and we must do it now. There is an immediate and desperate urgency.”(87-88).

He collected seeds to pay it forward to the next generation. And to think, how many fewer varieties would we have today if not for his work? Hoist another pint to Harry.

A Seed Collection for All

His seeds that kickstarted the collection maintained by the USDA are Harry’s greatest contribution. It currently has 32,729 accessions of barley in it, which are all publicly available in 5g sample packets.

It’s truly an incredible resource, and one that we personally have been incredibly grateful to have. It is the global genetic material that we are drawing on for our experiments with The Harlan Society, our open-source project to revive heritage grain varieties.

It’s really great that the seeds are there, but that’s only the first piece of the puzzle. We’re tackling the second piece now with the 16 members of the Harlan Society. We’re collectively growing out the 5g samples to the point where there’s a large enough quantity of seed that we can test its quality through malting and brewing. In the process, we’ll learn way more about the varieties, find out which are adapted to certain environments, and discover which ones lead to interesting new flavors in our beers.

We’re excited to try Giza, a variety we started growing out last year that was originally collected from Egypt.

The next step is getting the promising heritage varieties out there to growers, maltsters, and brewers, who can proceed to experiment with them and increase our collective knowledge exponentially. This collaboration was Harry’s hope for the collection:

“It is not a collection of the USDA. It is a collection for all who work with and grow barley, be they Americans, Australians, or Chinese. It is a world project for the good of mankind. Our collection should be maintained at more than one place. A thing of so much value should not be subject to the hazard of a single trustee…The maintenance of such a collection will cost much in time and labor, but those costs are low for the vast insurance they bring. I am sure the next generation will find the collection much more useful than the bulletins we might have written in the time diverted from this end”(89).

You’re right, Harry – we’re not still reading your bulletins, but we are still using your seeds. And we intend to pick up the thread of your work and keep it going.

Breadth for Barley

Once we’ve collectively built up enough seed to really start experimenting, we’ve got some options. We believe that a number of the varieties we grow out won’t require further breeding – they’ll perform well enough and be unique enough to be worthwhile to grow, malt, and brew in their current state. That has been the situation for red fife, a heritage variety of wheat that’s been revived and is now grown for bakers.

Modern breeding programs have produced incredibly productive and hardy varieties, and our work with The Harlan Society in no way seeks to undermine what they’ve done. The point is not to go back to some dreamy past and ignore modern breeding, but to delve back into the gene pool and find some good stuff to complement and even bolster modern breeding.

Science and industry have been very good at honing in on the minutiae of barley and understanding it in great depth. That’s how they’ve produced such powerhouse varieties. But in that process, they’ve really narrowed the options for modern barley down to a couple dozen recommended varieties (see our article on the development of modern barley varieties).

We want to go for breadth instead of depth, and widen the scope of modern barley to include hundreds of varieties that can be enjoyed by beer lovers. We need a diversity of barley varieties to match the diversity of craft beers out there.

One day this Chevalier barley (left) from the Victorian era could be grown next to this field of modern Conlon (right).

That’s why we need to put varietal choice back into the hands of the many. We can’t rely on the labs or big beer to increase diversity, given the way that science funding and production lines work. Those players demand specialization to the point where they can really nail one variety. To increase diversity, we need generalists, and lots of them.

Home brewers may be the perfect group to start making those varietal choices again. We can try wacky new things without much consequence if we mess up. We have the numbers and the lack of pressure to really explore the breadth of barley.

An Amateur Breeding Movement?

Once we’ve grown out a smattering of varieties and selected some winners, we can get really crazy and start improving the seeds. Plant breeding can be a terribly complex and intimidating endeavor, but it can also be as simple as selecting the best seeds from the lot. According to Harry, barley is a good place for an amateur to start: “It is a plant well adapted to primitive breeding”(11). Even when you get into the realm of artificial selection, it is still trial and error: cross two plants together, see what happens.

Harry was bothered by the scientific language around breeding that made it seem inaccessible to the layperson. He believed that “breeding is, and always will be, as much an art as a science”(110). When selecting seeds to save for the next generation, you can rely on simple judgments. Harry figured that “in 20 minutes we could instruct someone else so well that he could make just as good a group of selections as those we made ourselves”(110).

Harry strongly believed that we need more people out there collecting, growing, and breeding the world’s seeds. There’s a lot to be discovered and so much genetic potential to unlock. When asked the question of who is fit to become a breeder, he replied:

“We do want men who like plants, who are willing to accept the challenge of very difficult problems, men who must expect much frustration and difficulty. How are we to attract these men? We have one inducement that is rare. Before them lies an almost untouched and neglected field–a field of great service to mankind, a field in which they can become pioneers and leaders”(116).

Although he wrote that in 1944, his words still ring true today. There’s a lot of room to explore in a world where beer has come to rely on such homogenized varieties. Any direction you go can take you into uncharted territory, where exciting new beers await.

 

[1] Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse by John Mallett.

[2] One Man’s Life with Barley: The Memories and Observations of Harry V. Harlan by Harry Harlan.

 

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4 Comments on “Harry Harlan: The Godfather of Modern Barley”

  1. Great article! I guess I’m going to have to add Harry V. Harlan to the list of famous Scots alongside Alexander Graham Bell, Sean Connery, Rob Roy, James Maxwell and, of course, Mary Queen of Scots. Here’s to you, Harry!!

    1. He was actually born in Illinois, so you’ll have to take him off the list of famous Scots and put him on the list of famous Americans!

  2. I don’t know where I got the idea that Dr. Harlan was Scottish?! I did read that he lived a number of years in Aberdeen…but it was Aberdeen, Idaho, and not the more famous Aberdeen across the pond.

  3. Pingback: The Biologist | A pint for Dionysus

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