Saturday, 8 May 2010
I visited Chris Garrett at Warminster Maltings a couple of weeks ago - we've been using his malted barley to brew our beer for around 5 years now and have developed a close and beneficial working relationship. I like to know the materials I'm brewing with; malt and hops vary quite naturally from season to season, year to year, and it's a brewer's responsibility to take account of this irregularity and produce beer with acceptable consistency. Now, as a *small* brewer, with little purchasing clout, I'm not in a position to draw up demanding specifications for my supplies, and, even if I could, I'd be unable to verify them with the limited lab checks available to me. So ours' is a world slightly more intuitive than that of our bigger cousins and the better our understanding of the whole chain of supply, the better that intuition works. So I like to track back, through the chain, to the field, talking to the key (and not so key) people along the way in an attempt to pass understanding between us.
Chris and I, along with Piers from Nelson, Phil from Goachers, and James from Wantsum, have been discussing how we might get our barley grown locally, here in the Garden of England. There are many varieties of barley available to the farmer with new ones, bred for ever increasing growing efficiency, emerging all the time, but we smaller brewers tend to favour a rather old fashioned one, Marris Otter, for its superior flavour and brewhouse performance. 'Otter' was bred back in the 60s and its agronomic performance is way below today's standards, so it's no easy task to persuade Giles to struggle away with it when he could be growing something else, something with less risk and greater yields ('doesn't stand up' is farmers' vernacular for 'difficult to grow'). Brewers are fussy too about nitrogen levels in the grain - too little and our precious yeast is uncomfortable, too much and we get haze problems (in the beer). Generally, suitable soils for growing malting barley are the less fertile ones and, *very* generally, these are in East Anglia not in Kent. That said, Kent isn't completely devoid of fields of barley, there are isolated pockets but, at the moment, it is completely devoid of fields of Marris Otter barley.
So getting locally grown barley is by no means straightforward but, thanks to Warminster Malting, it is going to happen: the first acres are to be planted up later this year, the first grains harvested next spring and the malt on-line and in-beer next summer. And I'll be able to witness, first hand, the whole process from planting to drinking. It'll be a great year.
I must tell you more about Chris Garrett and his Warminster Maltings one day - it's one of those businesses that is sooo well run it makes you laugh out loud. I get most of my hops my Humphrey and most of my malt from Chris and that isn't going to change anytime soon.