Barley is something that I think about only when making soup, yet it’s among the top five crops grown worldwide.
And although barley didn’t reach the American shores until 1494, it’s one of the world’s oldest cultivated grains, documented archaeologically as early as 8000 BC.
And not just consumed as food—barley was used to make alcoholic beverages early on because if you can make a grain into alcohol, why not? By the time of the Sumerians, barley was used for 8 different ales!
Barley was first grown in Korea well over 2000 years ago, and was often cooked with rice, especially when the latter was in short supply. Therefore, barley (Korean: bori) would be milled so that it would better match rice grains in size.
Today, in Korea and other Asian countries, unhulled barley kernels continue to be roasted—originally done at home but now commercially—for the purposes of making barley tea, bori-cha.
Drunk hot or cold, with or without food, barley tea is consumed much like water.
Curious about it, I brewed a cup, following the directions on the bag—”Use 2 tbsp of assi barley tea for every 2l of water. Boil together for 5 min at medium heat and then drain the contents from the tea”—although I did a 10-minute boil.
The chocolate brown whole kernels have the toasty grain aroma that you would obviously expect from a toasted grain. Many of the hulls are cracked open.
The resulting tisane had a lovely golden-brown color and a definite barley aroma. Its flavor was bright, toasty, somewhat nutty, and starchy, just like, well, barley. I thought the tea decidedly on the weak side so next time would use more barley and simmer it longer.
The brewed kernels had a sweet aroma and you can see the cooked pulp.
Overall, I can see how barley tea would make a nice substitute for water. Its flavor, at least at the concentration I made, is pleasant and rather nondescript. Something that I could sip without paying attention to it. On the other hand, I’ve heard that when brewed very strongly, it can fill in for a coffee-like drink.
And, as with pretty much any tisane, many purported health benefits are touted. As Newman and Newman (2006:5) put it, “there are many anecdotal references to the medicinal value of barley tea throughout the literature.” However, there doesn’t seem to be any compelling health benefits specific to barley tea other than the fact that barley, like all plants, possesses anti-oxidants, phenols, and so on.
Still, it seems to me that because barley tea is mild, with a satisfying starchiness, and is naturally caffeine free, it’s ideal for when you’re feeling a bit under the weather. Although I won’t be substituting this tisane for real tea anytime soon, I will undoubtedly give it another try.
Source: Newman, C. W. and R. K. Newman, “A brief history of barley foods,” Cereal Foods World 52(1):4–7. Jan–Feb 2006.