BACKGROUND: Brachypodium distachyon constitutes an excellent model species for grasses. It is a small, easily propagated, temperate grass with a rapid life cycle and a small genome. It is a self-fertile plant that can be transformed with high efficiency using Agrobacteria and callus derived from immature embryos. In addition, considerable genetic and genomic resources are becoming available for this species in the form of mapping populations, large expressed sequence tag collections, T-DNA insertion lines and, in the near future, the complete genome sequence. The development of Brachypodium as a model species is of particular value in the areas of cell wall and biomass research, where differences between dicots and grasses are greatest. Here we explore the effect of mild conditions of pretreatment and hydrolysis in Brachypodium stem segments as a contribution for the establishment of sensitive screening of the saccharification properties in different genetic materials. RESULTS: The non-cellulosic monosaccharide composition of Brachypodium is closely related to grasses of agricultural importance and significantly different from the dicot model Arabidopsis thaliana. Diluted acid pretreatment of stem segments produced significant release of sugars and negatively affected the amount of sugars obtained by enzymatic hydrolysis. Monosaccharide and oligosaccharide analysis showed that the hemicellulose fraction is the main target of the enzymatic activity under the modest hydrolytic conditions used in our assays. Scanning electron microscopy analysis of the treated materials showed progressive exposure of fibrils in the stem segments. CONCLUSION: Results presented here indicate that under mild conditions cellulose and hemicellulose are hydrolysed to differing extents, with hemicellulose hydrolysis predominating. We anticipate that the sub-optimal conditions for hydrolysis identified here will provide a sensitive assay to detect variations in saccharification among Brachypodium plants, providing a useful analytical tool for identifying plants with alterations in this trait.