Farming feature: A grain of sense - following the barley chain

A field of barley sways in the wind

A field of barley sways in the wind - Credit: Eastern Daily Press � 2013

Stowmarket-based malt firm Muntons makes malts, malt extracts, flours and flakes for the food and drink industry. The malting process relies on one essential raw material - malting barley. SARAH CHAMBERS spoke to grain supply chain manager Mike Norfolk about the crucial role that farmers play in the success of the business.

Combining of winter barley at David Stennett Ltd, Culford Lodge Farms, Ingham

Combining of winter barley at David Stennett Ltd, Culford Lodge Farms, Ingham - Credit: Archant

To a brewer, barley is a pearl among grains, and an essential part of the beer-making process.

Zoe Robinson, Mike Norfolk and Felicity Bloomfield are members of the grain team at Muntons.

Zoe Robinson, Mike Norfolk and Felicity Bloomfield are members of the grain team at Muntons.

So for maltsters, such as Stowmarket-based Muntons, supplying its brewery and distillery customers with malt made with high-quality barley is of key importance.

Muntons enjoys a direct relationship with many of its barley growers, a good proportion of which can be found around Suffolk, Norfolk and wider East Anglia. Conditions are ideally suited to growing the crop and the region has historically been one of the UK’s major growing areas, especially around the coastal areas of Suffolk and in north Norfolk, where land is light and of poor quality, thus denying the plant too much nitrogen.

Since nitrogen is converted into protein through the malting and brewing process, and since too much protein results in a cloudy, of ‘hazy’ brew, levels of the element must be carefully monitored within the raw crop.

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That’s one of the jobs of the grain team at Muntons, which is led by Mike Norfolk. The team is there to ensure that the crop coming in meets the exacting requirements of not only its own team of maltsters, but that of the end customers, each of whom have differing needs.

“As a company, Muntons is buying a quarter of a million tonnes of malting barley a year. The majority of it comes from within a 50 mile radius of our maltings,” explains Mike.

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“They do grow barley particularly well in those areas. That’s why the maltings were built.”

Creating a traceable field-to-glass or field-to-plate chain has been an important factor in the firm’s success, and it has worked hard to cultivate good relationships, explains Mike, its grain supply chain manager. These include farm visits, where customers can meet with the farmers producing the raw material and the two sides get to understand better the challenges “in the field”.

Barley is the most essential part of malt production, and requires only water and heat to create the grain known as malt, which is used to deepen and enhance flavour in food and drink using natural rather than “artificial” means.

Farmers deliver the barley crop to Muntons’ malting sites at Stowmarket and Bridlington in Yorkshire, and their load is tested to ensure it is a suitable quality for malting. A vacuum probe is placed in the load to extract a 2kg random sample to be tested.

“We want the best quality barley we can buy,” explains Mike. “When it comes into intake we have a system that uses a vacuum probe to take a representative sample of the load.”

The grains of barley will undergo a battery of tests. They will be tested for nitrogen content, moisture levels, and looked at to ensure they are clear of fungal infection or other diseases and insect infestation.

If the grain passes the quality test, it will then be cleared of any residual stones and debris to ensure it’s ready for the delicate malting process, which requires very precise conditions.

Muntons staff will clean and dry the grain to ensure it will germinate evenly and to prevent mould.

They then steep it, or soak it in water, and give it periodic “air rests” to ensure the grain hydrates evenly before it is transferred to a vessel where it is will be left to germinate under controlled conditions. The “green malt” as it is then known, is transferred to kilns and dried with warm air to stop the germination process and create the malt.

Evidence of barley crops date back to neolithic times, and barley beer is thought to be one or our first alcoholic drinks. There are even indications that it was once used as currency, and it was certainly a staple of ancient Egypt, used to make beer and bread.

Malting is a traditional art, and while much science is now involved, the essential process remains the same.

Muntons has a very longstanding relationship with its farmer growers which dates back to a time when it had its own grain merchanting arm, C K Squirrell, which was incorporated about 15 years ago into the business. However, the old ties remain and mean that the firm is possibly unique in having a mixture of farmer and grain merchant suppliers. It means its relationship with the land remains strong, and when customers who are increasingly keen on traceability and carbon footprint want to look at where the raw ingredients for their products are coming from, Muntons is able to provide them with a ready answer - and an invitation to a barley walk where they can go out into the field close to harvest time to meet the farmers first hand and discuss the technical aspects of the crop.

“We talk to farmers directly. We do it for traceability so we know where our barley comes from. We do it for information. It gives us a good idea of what farmers want and what varieties they want to grow,” says Mike.

Where it can, Muntons will buy locally, and within a 50-mile radius of its two maltings. In East Anglia, where there is a lot of malting capacity and therefore competing demand, achieving this can be occasionally challenging.

As with all crops, barley comes in different varieties, only some of which are suitable for malting. There are farmers who grow barley for animal feed, using varieties which will give them a higher yield but which aren’t acceptable to distillers or brewers, usually because of factors such as their higher nitrogen content.

“We do only buy malting barley varieties that have gone through long testing processes to pick out the characteristics of that barley to have the correct characteristics to make it into malt,” explains Mike.

The UK is unusual in that it produces winter as well as spring barley. On the continent, winter barley, which is ready to harvest a few weeks before spring barley, having over-wintered in the field, is almost unknown. This is mainly because our milder winters allow us to grow the crop in this way, while harsh continental winters make the practice virtually impossible.

However, this does also mean that, despite good characteristics which make it just as suitable for malting, some customers are sceptical due to lack of familiarity, explains Mike, and, due to customer demand, the higher proportion - about 60% - of the crop Muntons processes will be spring barley.

Farmers know that should the malting barley they grow not make the grade, it can go into feed, which is generally lower-priced.

However, as with all commodity crops the price of barley is at the mercy of world markets and the unpredictable nature of supply and demand, which is dictated by factors such as weather, how much of the crop is grown and changing tastes among end customers.

“It depends on the year a little bit. Premiums for growing malting barley will vary - supply and demand kicks in,” explains Mike.

“Equally, if there’s too much malting barley the premiums go down.

“The difference between malting barley varieties and feed barley varieties tends to be on yield. Feed barley will get more tonnage per acre.”

That means the farmer must balance carefully the difference between premium and yield and will make a careful calculation on which crop to grow, weighing up the potential price and the risk.

“We spend a lot of time working with our growers and working with our merchant grain suppliers to be the maltsters of choice that they supply to because we want the best quality barley we can buy,” says Mike.

For the maltster, there are a number of factors to consider when looking at the grain coming in. Muntons is unusual in that while 80% of the crop will be used to make malt for the beer and whisky industries, 20% will go into food ingredients, where high protein is a positive, rather than a negative.

And then, some brewers will take higher nitrogen content for lager production where the brewing process used removes the risk of haze. This is crucial to farmers as it prevents those with a crop with a higher nitrogen content which is otherwise of good quality having to take it around the country to find an alternative buyer.

“We use a lot ourselves,” says Mike.

“We can take anything from 1.4% up to 2% nitrogen. We can take a whole range.”

Nitrogen levels are crucial and so are moisture levels and incoming crops should have a maximum of 15% moisture in them. Even then, they must be brought down to 12% for safe storage at the plant. If it’s higher than 15%, a moisture allowance will kick in as it will require extra drying. Damp grains can result in smell, insect infestation or mould so water content is carefully monitored.

Potential fungal infections that Mike and his team will be on the lookout for include ergot, a fungus which grows in the ear of the grain.

“It’s like a little black seed which is very poisonous whether it goes into the animal or human food chain,” he explains.

The key to success, says Mike, is a good working relationship. Muntons Barley walks show what’s actually happening with the crop in the field that year. Customers can see the fields of barley being grown and their different characteristics.

“Getting farmers and customers together is something I have tried to get to work really for a number of years and it’s great that the last five to eight years we have been able to do it,” says Mike.

“What we have found over time is that by continually doing it the problems the farmer has, and the problem the customer has, are reduced. It’s made a massive difference.”

The supply chain is important to Muntons for another reason too as in recent years it has been leading the field in creating a low-carbon supply chain, and examining all aspects of what it does and what its suppliers do.

“Having the customers ourselves and the farmers talking together is a good forum for green issues,” says Mike.

“About five years ago our managing director, Alan Ridealgh, said he wanted all of our barley supply to come from low carbon growers. That set the hare running. Nobody at that time was really looking at carbon. The malting industry started to look at its carbon footprint and we as Muntons really started to push that forward and probably led the way and started to look at our farmer suppliers.

“It led us back to farm where the most of the carbon was being produced and that was in the application and manufacture of fertiliser. We started to look at how we could reduce fertiliser applications by using compost on land and looking at where that fertiliser comes from. Some manufacturers use a practice which takes out the really harmful nitrous oxide out of the fertiliser which automatically makes it a lower carbon fertiliser.

“What we have done is work with the farmer to encourage them to use practices that minimise their carbon footprint.

“The farmer has a choice. They don’t have to grow malting barley. What we want to do is to encourage farmers to grow barley rather than competitive crops.”

The main competitors in the field, other than feed barley, are oilseed rape and wheat. The choices farmers make will be dependent on factors such as weather predictions and some see winter barley as a means of getting something under way before the winter sets in, thus extending the harvest season.

But as every gardener knows, while you can reduce your risk, all crops are vulnerable to the weather.

“It’s a natural product. One of the biggest problems we have is we have a product that changes every year according to the weather,” says Mike.

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