Stowmarket: Malt company Muntons supplies its ‘secret’ ingredient around the world

Alan Ridealgh, group managing director at Muntons.

Alan Ridealgh, group managing director at Muntons.

Stowmarket-based malt firm Muntons exports its malts, malt extracts, flours and flakes around the world, but for a long time it has hidden its light under a bushel. Now the makers of the “hidden ingredient” in many of our favourite foods want consumers to understand and appreciate the beauty of barley malt, as SARAH CHAMBERS found out.

With a turnover which topped £100million for the first time last year, malt firm Muntons is an important player in the food and drink sector.

Like its product, it has a remarkably low profile. Yet it transacts business with a sizeable number of local farmers - it buys all its barley for the manufacturing process from within a 50 mile radius of its two maltings - and sells an impressive half of what it produces to a large number of overseas customers.

Tucked away off the road linking Stowmarket and Needham Market lies its large Suffolk headquarters, Cedar Maltings, which is home to 220 or so staff. To the north of the country, it has another more modern maltings at Bridlington in Yorkshire, with a further 30 employees. Its tentacles spread globally to other continents - including to Seattle, where Muntons Inc has been established, and to bases in Thailand and Singapore.

Muntons has a remarkable story to tell, both in terms of its global reach, and the versatility of its product, and this is a message which the company wants to get across to a much wider audience, including other food and drink industries and malt’s ultimate consumers - the public.

Malt, as Muntons’ enthusiastic team at Stowmarket will tell you, is capable of enhancing the flavours of both savoury and sweet foods, as well as being is a key ingredient in one of our most famous tipples, malt whisky - another British champion when it comes to exports.

At the company’s helm is group managing director Alan Ridealgh, who has overseen a £4.2million turnaround in the company, dubbing 2013 its “year of re-growth”. Last year, turnover hit £101m, and profit before tax rose to £3.5m from a loss of £595,000 the previous year. This was against a backdrop of volatile grain markets, and it expects the growth trend to continue.

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“We are a thriving company with strong emphasis on local raw materials and global sales, which adds to the sustainability of our business by spreading our market risks,” he says.

The company’s product, malt, is created using just two ingredients - water and barley - along with air and heat. After the basic malt is made, it’s possible to create ranges of flavours just through heat. During the malting process, natural sugars within the barley are released.

Muntons believes that as manufacturers come under increasing pressure to create food which is more wholesome, to use less salt and sugar and to improve their ingredients labelling, products such as malt will come into their own. To this end, it has its own research and development arm, housed in its Centre for Excellence at Stowmarket, where it can trial innovations and help other food and drink manufacturers in the creation of new products.

The malting process at the heart of the operation is age-old, but, as Mr Ridealgh points out, the firm itself is in a process of modernising and adapting to changing markets and creating a sustainable future for itself by embracing new thinking on energy and the use of resources.

It is currently building a £5.3million anaerobic digestion plant at its Stowmarket site which, powered by waste products from its processes, is expected to supply it with about a quarter of its energy needs and also produce compost.

“We firmly believe in finding practical ways to lower our carbon impact. We see this as a part of our everyday business,” he explains.

The company has created its own slogan to underline its environmental commitments - ‘Practical Sustainability - P.S, It’s no afterthought’, and is working towards becoming as low-carbon as it can.

It’s the company’s hope that this approach, as well as bringing benefits to the environment, will also bring financial rewards. The firm hopes major retailers will begin to wake up to the potential this creates and demand that their raw material is sourced from Muntons because of its sustainable credentials. It is taking a leading part in sustainable initiatives within the food industry, and is building relationships with some of the big players within it, who are equally keen to improve their carbon credentials. A key part of this will involve securing sustainably-sourced malting barley, and helping farmers in their efforts to become more green.

One major area of growth at Muntons has been its craft brewing arm, which has benefited from a renaissance in the sector on both sides of the Atlantic over the past few years, bucking the economic downturn. New recipes are trialled at its Centre for Excellence before being launched onto the market. Some of Muntons’ brewing customers have taken advantage of the facilities at Stowmarket to help launch products under their own label.

The American craft brewing phenomenon is such that it has led to Muntons setting up a new silo facility in Vermont which enables it to store 100 tonnes of malt at a time, fed by containers which are shipped from Stowmarket.

“The success of the distilling industry has been paramount to our success, but it has been well supported by activity right across the world including the craft brewing sector. Muntons has always been strong in this area and it remains important to us,” says Mr Ridealgh.

“As we enter a new season, we are carefully fine-tunning the operations and customer base to ensure long-term profitability. This includes the expansion of our home beer and winemaking wholesale business to include a greater range of customers.”