Wednesday 6 May 2009

Maris Otter

Having a brewery results in me getting some interesting mailshots. Very often it's just junk mail from people trying to sell me some multi-thousand pound piece of equipment that is too big for my brewery, sometimes it's some fancy cask tracking system that I can't afford, and anyway, don't need due to my casks almost never leaving the pub. Sometimes it's useful stuff like invitations to buy a new wort cooler, that I couldn't afford, but boy, I'm glad I used a little more of the overdraft on, 'cause it saves me 2 hours per brew.

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.


Whorst said...

Can you get Golden Promise? Floor malted Golden Promise is amazing. I've used it, and if wasn't $2.25 a pound, I'd use nothing but. I'd just use the cheapest 2-row you can find. You can up the flavor by using more crystal, or various other malts. I currently use Northwest Pale Ale Malt, which is kilned similarly to Maris Otter. It's $1.09 a pound, I imagine wholesale it's less than .50 cents a pound. Do some experimenting with cheaper variations of 2-row.

Andy said...

Thats the great thing about brewing - even when the specs for different malt varieties suggest there should be little difference in switching, your still never quite sure!

I think the majority of drinkers don't care about specific varieties of malt used. Even most of the beer geeks seem more concerned about hop varieties.

I bet if you do change, you will experience a slight feeling of betrayal next time you weigh your grist!

Good luck!

Unknown said...

Andy, yes you're right. I was asking a question which I rather hoped wasn't rhetorical. But it would seem from the lack of comments that most readers don't care where the malt comes from. Bad news for Maris Otter growers.

Alistair Reece said...

I guess it depends on how "authentic" you want your beer to be. I can see that British beer should be made with British malt, just as a good Pilsner should be made with Moravian malt.

However, I can also see the economic sense that say if you can make the same beer, with the same flavours for cheaper then why not use something a bit different?

I wonder though if any of the barley growers would sell direct to brewers?

Tandleman said...

I know that Lees moved away from Maris Otter a few years ago due to both price and consistency problems. I think at the time weather had affected availability and quality, so the moved to something more consistent. I think they use halcyon and a bit of pipkin now. I'll check, but at least they are 100% malt brews with just a touch of caramel (if needed) for colour adjustment. Mind you, they may have gone back to Maris Otter. It's a good point. I rarely think of asking a brewer what malt he uses. Rather, I ask what percentages of what kind.

Unknown said...

Sausage, sorry, I wasn't ignoring you. This is the range I can currently get. You'll notice the same pale malts that Tandleman mentions. I don't think beer has enough flavour if there isn't any Crystal in it. With it in then maybe the pale malt starts to become irrelevant.

Velky Al, most brewers can't malt the grain themselves. So at the very least the farmers would have to sell direct to maltsters. I think maltsters like the homogenised supply that comes from having to deal with only a few merchants rather than many farmers. In Scotland some distilleries malt their own and as a result there is a little more direct farm to distillery sales.

Tandleman, It would be nice to know a little more about what various brewers do use, and much more importantly, what effect the barley variety has on the final beer.

Tim said...

I exeprimented with different pale malt varieties when brewing a few years ago. I found that its the method of malting which contributes to flavour more than the barley variety.
Floor malting results in a thicker maltier flavour than bin malted. I suspect that the lacto bacteria that the grain husk hosts during floor malting has an impact on flavour.
All this is based purely upon my own tinkering though.

Alistair Reece said...


That is certainly a very different situation from the Czech Republic. Pilsner Urquell for example still have their own maltings as well. As do a fair few of the medium sized brewers such as Chodovar.

An interesting thing on the Chodovar website lists teh ten reasons they brew good beer (and they do!) :

Ed said...

I stick with Maris Otter for my home brew, when I've tried using other pale malts it's not been as good. The brewery I used to work at was strictly MO only too.

Having said that there could be other possibilities out there. I was once at a presentation by a guy from the company behind MO where there was samples of various 'malt porridges' to taste and a range of beers to try made to the same recipe except for different types of pale malt. Some were pretty rough, some were good but my favourite turned out not to be MO but another winter barley. Sadly the name of the variety escapes me, the presentation was held at a brewery and I made the most of it!

Benj said...

I see that you use Fawcett malt (as do I, a homebrewer in the USA). I just finished my last bag of Fawcett's Golden Promise, but still have a few sacks of Maris Otter. Your link to the Fawcett malts page shows no Golden Promise - please tell me that it is still available from Fawcett! Both are wonderful malts, in my opinion.

To answer your non-rhetorical question, I believe that the malt variety is critical, and that we as brewers must try to save Maris Otter (and Golden Promise).

Benj said...

To follow-up on my earlier post, I checked with the North American supplier of Fawcett malts and they still have Golden Promise available. If you are not able to buy it, I am confused!