Farming feature: Field to glass deal with Adnams links grower to brewer
- Credit: Matthew Usher
One of East Anglia’s largest farming estates has forged a dedicated barley-to-beer supply relationship with Southwold brewer Adnams. MICHAEL POLLITT visits just before harvest to find out how it is helping to bring old plant back into action.
As the combines prepared to roll through the heart of East Anglia’s malting barley country this summer, a new era was dawning.
The golden acres on the Holkham estate in north Norfolk are now part of a strong field-to-glass chain which links them to Southwold-based brewer Adnams.
The initiative evolved as the four members of the partnership – the grower, grain merchant, maltster and brewer - wanted to secure a guaranteed supply of malt for brewing and distilling.
A three-year supply deal will provide half of the malt used by Adnams for its beers and spirits grown at Holkham. It has taken many months of planning between all the various parties to seal the deal, which initially involved discussions between Holkham’s director of farming, Poul Hovesen, and grain merchant, Andrew Dewing. At around the same time, a leading maltster, Boortmalt, based at Bury St Edmunds, which has supplied Adnams for some years, was asked by its brewer customer to consider a long-term sourcing strategy.
But it was the potential to wake a “sleeping giant” on the estate that became the key to the supply concept, said Mr Hovesen. When he joined the Holkham team more than a year ago, he realised that the estate’s central grain storage facility at Egmere, near Walsingham, could be pivotal. “It was decided to re-energise this plant and it needed to be fired up again,” he added.
He enlisted the support of the head of Aylsham-based Dewing Grain, who has specialised in malting barley for 35 years. By coincidence, Mr Dewing had also been discussing the possibilities of an exclusive sourcing arrangement with Boortmalt, formerly Paul’s Malt, which is one of Europe’s largest maltsters.
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The Egmere site on the Royal Air Force’s former South Creake station, has at least 22,000 tonnes storage in the former second world war hangars, mostly dating from either 1942 or 1943. After most of the hangars and site had formerly been used by British Field Products for drying lucerne, mostly grown by Holkham tenants, it was taken over by former agricultural merchants, R J Seaman, and later Dalgety.
As Mr Dewing recalled, it became a significant site, especially for malting barley, in the 1980s. There had been substantial investment in specialist cleaning, drying and blending facilities on the site including a “Rolls-Royce” grain handling system, a Kamas Westrup dresser.
Now, the estate has re-energised the plant, said Mr Hovesen. “It had all become a little tired and worn. We either had to replace or overhaul it. As it was so sophisticated and built to such a specification, it was decided to overhaul it,” he added.
The investment included reconditioning the elevators, re-wiring the two driers, which have two 30-tonne an hour capacity, and adding new ducting. New control systems for the driers were installed.
At the other end of the site, said Mr Hovesen, a purpose-built blending plant had been built. Shortly after he had joined Sir John White’s Salle estate near Reepham in 1987, he had attended the official opening of the 1,200 tonne facility. It still has the original 24 50-tonne bins, which was “the most phenomenal blending unit around. It is as good as it gets,” said Mr Dewing.
The supply strategy, led by the Holkham Farming Company, will provide an opportunity for tenants to use the storage facility. It will be managed by Mr Dewing, who welcomed about two dozen neighbouring growers to an informal launch earlier this week. “It is bringing back a sleeping beauty and re-inventing the wheel. For me to stride into the old Dalgety Seamans site and have the job of filling it is great. It is amazing and I’m delighted with it,” he added.
In the past seven years, his business from grown from nothing to handling 237,000 tonnes of ex-farm grain. “It is on the model of taking it to central stores, selling it, being good at it and selling futures’ wheat, and that’s all we’re going to do in a slightly different area.”
“We will look to fill the store with local farmers’ grain. The principle is simple. We take grain from farmers quickly and immediately at harvest time. We have got the maltsters to back us with the bulk lots that we put together, said Mr Dewing.
“In recent years, people don’t own central storage or storage. It goes direct to maltsters and there’s less opportunity to take barley quickly at harvest and movement has become an issue. The potential is phenomenal,” he added.
There was already an established system with competitors buying local barley. “What we’re bringing to the party is a bit more competition and perhaps a bit quicker movement and perhaps an opportunity to have an alternative. That is the backbone of what we do with malting barley,” said Mr Dewing.
He plans to register the east hangar as a futures’ store. It is on opposite side of the so-called dry road to Wells and has about 10,000 tonnes capacity.
“We will be buying wheat into the site pretty much through the calendar year but we will be using it as a futures’ store. If you want to deliver to Walsingham, for immediate harvest movement, we will be there buying.”
The store complex will be managed by the estate’s Paul Bloomfield, who has considerable experience of the plant, alongside Martin Brown, who has worked for Salle Farms for the past year.
Mr Hovesen, who also recently won the award as champion manager of Sir John White’s Salle estate in the Norfolk county farm business competition, said that Holkham has enjoyed a close relationship with Adnams for a number of years.
“We have been able to develop this partnership, where we have a strategy, and we can handle it and we can get closer to the end market. As farmers, we have been told to get closer to the end market,” he said.
“From January, if you’re drinking Adnams beers or their spirits, it will be made from our barley. It is a great achievement: let this be the beginning.”
“We contract farm over 3000 hectares of estate land using modern day intensive farming methods. An important part of the farming operation at Holkham is to establish partnerships with local manufacturers to ensure the product we grow is utilised in the very best way to the benefit of East Anglia.”
Fergus Fitzgerald, who is head brewer of Southwold-based Adnams, said: “By placing longer term contracts with named growers, we can secure supply and ensure the quality of our barley.
“We prefer to build relationships with farms such as Holkham, as they have the knowledge and expertise to produce the specific varieties of barley that are required for Adnams beers and spirits, rather than growers that come in and out of the market depending on the price,” said Mr Fitzgerald, who won a parliamentary award as the country’s brewer of the year at the House of Commons earlier this month.
Mr Hovesen said that it also was part of the estate’s long-term strategy to reduce the carbon footprint and become even more sustainable and environmentally responsible. On the site, adjoining the central grain store, the estate’s new anaerobic digestion (AD) biogas plant, was designed to produce gas made from crops including energy maize. Some of this “green” energy could be used to power the grain plant’s operations. “We will be using ‘green’ energy in blending, drying or pre-cleaning produced on the doorstep,” he added.
In a further move to benefit wildlife including songbirds and insects, Viscount Coke has also agreed that all the main drives through the estate will have wide floristically-enhanced margins bordering crops in the park.
Mr Hovesen was delighted that Teddy Maufe, of Branthill Farm, who was the neighbouring tenant and runs the nearby Real Ale Shop, was also present because he has been promoting beer and especially malting barley for many years.
Mr Maufe, chairman of the Confederation of Malting Barley Growers, welcomed the re-launch of Egmere and also the supply project. “I’ve realised this has been a sleeping giant. It will help tenants, cash flow, and be an additional market for malting barley. The more the profile is raised, it helps all the tenants on the estate,” he said.
“It ticks a lot of boxes. I’m really pleased and this is such an asset,” he added.