Sometimes it's information that is of little use to my regular brewing but of great interest to the beer world in general. Today I received one such communication. It's from some barley merchants and the main people, if I understand their blurb, who maintain and improve the Maris Otter variety of barley. They are Robin Appel LTD and H Bantham LTD.
They have a deep concern over the instability of the price of Maris Otter. The contracts for Maris Otter growing are negotiated ahead of time and with a view to how the price compares to other varieties, ones that are mainly grown on the continent. Farmers plan this compared to other crops they might choose to grow on the basis that they are, as any sensible business does, gaining best return on their assets. The main asset for a farm, is of course, the land.
When the contracts for the 2009 harvest were placed the 2008 harvest had not yet occurred. During August 2008 there was a glut of cheaper brewing grain from the continent that flooded the market causing the Maris Otter farmers to find it difficult to compete on price. Breweries would then substitute other varieties in brews if the light coloured malt in the brew was less critical. The upshot of this is that farmers will choose to plant less Maris Otter for the 2010 harvest and so the variety may become more expensive again, turning it into a niche variety, which perhaps it already is. It has, after all, been described as the "Grand Cru" of malt varieties.
Conversely, if the price goes too high, as often happens due to the time lag associated with such things, there may well be over-planting in future years, causing a further glut. This sort of instability should be of great concern to barley growers, merchants and breeders, maltsters, brewers and beer connoisseur alike.
I relate this to the unfortunate situation we have with hops, which has a cycle that is much longer. From what I've been told, around 7 years from planting before sensible return is achieved. The result is that in the last 2 years, hop prices have increasing from a low, to me, of £5 per Kg up to prices as high as £40 or more per Kg. It got so bad that for a while some varieties became completely unavailable last year. This occurred because, as hop prices became too low, hop growers tore up the hopbines. Hopefully they are replanting them again.
The business man in me says that this is just the way it goes. If brewers can make perfectly acceptable beer by substituting a cheaper variety when it is economically sensible then maybe that's just the laws of the free market. The barley farmers are perhaps no worse off than the apple grower or potato grower or wheat grower or for that matter any food crop that has to compete in what is now, in my view unfortunate, global market.
And there, through my attempt to seem like a hard nosed businessman, I gave away my affection for the traditional. Maris Otter is THE British pale ale malt. Surely we can't let it suffer unduly?
The barley merchants are asking for brewers to give an indication of their commitment so that more sensible forward planning can be achieved. To know this perhaps we need to know how much the beer drinker cares about the variety of malt that goes into the brew. Does, in fact, Maris Otter make the beer better and therefore justify the use of a more expensive malt?
Even as a brewer, all be it small scale, and a beer connoisseur, I'm not sure I know the answer to that question. For now I'll have to accept the dissonance that is created in my mind as my free market principles compete with my sense of the tradition.