Edition 35: Friends of Warminster Malt

Edition 35: Friends of Warminster Malt

It’s That Time of Year, Again

I am back out on the road, engaged in a busy schedule over 4 weeks of visiting farms with Brewing and Distilling customers to inspect barley crops which are destined to become their bespoke malts later this year. I began on ‘the longest day’ (June 21st), up on the Marlborough downs, in the pouring rain! 

I am with Jason Bayliffe of Broad Town Brewery – his brewery is just 3 miles away – and we were inspecting a particularly good crop of Maris Otter barley, which will hopefully become Jason’s base malt from October onwards.

Jason says when his customers learn that his beer is brewed from barley grown just beneath Hackpen Hill (the adjacent landmark), he expects his beer sales to treble!

This photograph was taken by Russell Sach, a freelance photographer who agreed to shadow me to some of these locations – Russell supplies some of the broadsheet newspapers and high profile periodicals – with a view to capturing images of the “grain to glass” supply chain.

All Publicity…

Our friendship with Russell Sach began at the end of May, when he rang us, urgently requesting a picture of our maltsters at work. He said the editor of The Daily Telegraph wanted a picture for the weekend.

The photograph was taken on the Friday afternoon ahead of the Spring Bank Holiday, and we were led to believe, it was for the main paper on Saturday or Sunday, possibly complimenting a story about the state of the Hospitality Sector.

But instead, we ended up in the Business pages on the following Tuesday, June 1st. Readers might have wondered what we were doing there: were we the subject of a takeover (emphatic ‘No’), was the U.K. malting industry the beneficiary/victim of some new trade deal (not that I’m aware of). Our picture was just that, a lone picture. But the caption was false.

It claimed we had closed the Maltings during the pandemic, the first time for more than 165 years. Not true! We ceased production in 2020 for four weeks, simply because our malt bins were all full. But we never closed, we maintained deliveries to customers every week. So, in case you saw it, I would like to put the record straight.

Much More of a Story!

One of our customers, Alison Davis of Carlisle Brewing Co., did better than a broadsheet newspaper. Alison made it on to BBC Radio 4’s “World at One” news programme on May 18th.

This was a story directly connected to the Hospitality Sector, but it goes right back to The Great War (WW1) and 1916.

What happened then, apparently, and particularly in Carlisle, and what the BBC was now alluding to, in the face of adversity, would there be an overreaction by the public when they are allowed back into the pubs without restrictions?

Back in 1916, just up the road from Carlisle, at Gretna, was the largest munitions factory in Europe, where the employees worked especially long hours, but were particularly well paid. So at the weekends, they all escaped down to Carlisle, pockets bulging with “loads of money”, rammed all the pubs to the rafters, and had such a wild time that they both shocked and frightened the residents of Carlisle.

When the workers returned to Gretna, on Monday morning, they all had shocking hangovers, and they were handling high explosives! The Government found it absolutely necessary to step in.

So the Government embarked on an extraordinary social experiment they called “The State Management Scheme”, specifically for Carlisle, whereby the Civil Servants took over the running of Carlisle’s breweries and pubs, with the specific aim of reducing the consumption of alcohol.

They began by downgrading the strength of the beers, and then, with the help of renowned architect Harry Redfern, they redesigned the pubs, including Carlisle Brewing Co’s very own ‘Spinners Arms’, so as to reduce consumption by creating smaller spaces where they also introduced pub games (Dominoes, Shove Ha’penny, and Darts).

Clearly what the BBC was questioning when they invited Alison on to the programme, was the chances of this happening all over again, when pubs return to normality – the freedom to drink at the bar, and no limit to party size. Well, bring it on, I say, and free of any further ‘state intervention’ please, because the next morning not many of us, hangover or no hangover, will be going to work in a munitions factory!

Better and Better Malt!

We keep shouting about this, because there is no question about it, we are making better and better malt. What is more, both our established customers, and new customers, are independently confirming this with their own observations and tributes.

Quite apart from being even more selective in the barleys we are taking in, we have also re-introduced a number of early 20th century techniques when ‘floor made’ malt reached it’s peak of perfection and industrial scale production. Let me describe x5 of the changes we either have made, or are in the process of making.

1.) ‘Stepping the Steeps’ – as the weather warms up in the summer, we are now changing the timings for putting the barley under water, and even the number of steeps, down from x3 of shorter duration to  just x2 of slightly longer duration. You see, when the water from each steep drains away, and the barley is left “to rest” between immersions, the barley can warm up a lot more quickly than in winter, so we then need to time the steeps to ensure a swifter transfer from the final steep to the germination floor. As we always point out, in the winter we are constantly striving to keep the malt warm, and in the summer, it’s all about keeping the malt cool.

2.) ‘Dragging the Floors’ – we are ploughing the floors more often, at least x3 times during the day, and up to x2 times at night. This helps to maintain a more constant temperature in the ‘green malt’, and optimise ‘modification’.

Warminster Maltings - Traditional English Floor Malt

3.) Night Light – when electricity was first introduced into Maltings at the beginning of the 20th century (previously oil lamps), maltsters quickly discovered that leaving the lights on all night on the germination floors enhanced the ‘modification’ of the ‘green malt’. We can all understand this, it’s all about light equals growth! We now not only do that, but we are trialling different lights to ensure we achieve the most benefit.

4.) ‘Thickening Up’ – this is an early 20th century term which entails folding half the germination floor on top of the other half, the night before the ‘green malt’ goes to the kiln. This ensures a more perfect finish to the ‘modification’ process, in order to maximise the extract potential of the malt (volume of beer per tonne of malt).

5.) Kiln Spinner – this is a remotely controlled spinning disc set in the kiln, which was a feature when our kiln was first installed in 1953. This device spread the ‘green malt’ evenly across the kiln floor as it poured in from the overhead elevator, and overcame the necessary tramping by maltsters when they had to spread the ‘green malt’ by hand. Unfortunately it broke down at the end of the 1980’s and was never replaced.

So we have had to design a replacement ourselves, and as we have no illustrations or technical drawings, the project is requiring more than a small element of R&D! But once we can perfect it, we can eliminate the tramping by maltsters, which can, sometimes, impede the early airflow through the malt.

Our Malts now Speak for Themselves!

Everyday, our laboratory analysis confirms the wisdom of our actions. Our malts can now easily match the best of our competitors, if not better them (according to some of our customers). This is despite all the modern technology and intellectual support which the malt factories proclaim. The difference is, every day, we are making our malts with our heads and our hearts!

From Malting History to Brewing History

Finally, I promised to give Edd Mather a plug in this newsletter. Edd is a Practical Brewer and Brewing Historian based in Lancashire, and avid supporter of Warminster Maltings. One of his wide-ranging services to brewers is the Research and Design of Old Beer Recipes with ingredients tailored to clients location. If you would like to enquire further, Edd can be contacted: eddbrewer6@gmail.com

Keep safe and keep on drinking.

Robin Appel

Edition 34: Friends of Warminster Maltings

Edition 34: Friends of Warminster Maltings

At Last…Our Virtual Tour!

Hey ho! We can, at last, invite you to have a virtual tour of our very traditional malting process. The short (6 minutes) film has now been uploaded and here is a link for you to see it.

It seems to have taken forever to complete this project, the main stumbling block being my walk on parts, and my ability to look the same at the beginning and the end, despite being filmed 6 months apart.

We are talking about my need to get a haircut in between! Having made most of the film in October/November last year, we had to wait for the sunshine to return in order to capture the final scenes.

The problem then, was, that we might have transformed our gentle documentary into a Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde horror movie, me standing there, second time around, with 4 months growth on my napper!

Freshly shorn, we filmed the scene in brilliant sunshine on April 22nd, only to have to do it all over again the following week just before it started to rain. But we got there in the end.

We are hugely indebted to Jasper Williams at Juice Factory Design, whose great skill with modern technology has put this film together for us. Jasper has also produced a slightly more comprehensive version for our US market. Our agents over there, LD Carlson Company, are very pleased with what we have achieved for them. Now we have started down this road, we are already thinking about what, and where, we are going next.

The Challenges of Forecasting…

Throughout April, sales of our malts have improved markedly. Brewers are responding to demand from pubs (with outside spaces) following the April 12th reopening. However, it seems, what nobody really predicted was the gorgeous sunshine, which has meant those pubs have been enormously popular, so popular that some of them even ran out of beer! All this despite near freezing temperatures in the evenings.

Well, we certainly did not run out of malt, but demand has called for a rapid reset of our recent working patterns, almost back to normal hours. And the Maltsters are so much happier, well, everyone is, of course.

There is a suggestion that this lovely weather is set to continue for some time. Add this to ‘Staycation’, and the fact that since this time last year so many more people have discovered Craft Beer, we are trying to weigh up what this all means in terms of malt demand, going forward.

The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA), CAMRA, and others are all promoting a catchy little slogan “Craft is back, so back Craft”. I think it sounds like we are going to be very busy. That will be a nice change!

…and Broadcasting!

On Wednesday 21st April, Maggie Dee, a presenter on Warminster Radio, invited me to be interviewed on her programme ‘Maggie in the Mix’. Each day, Maggie tries to interview “a Warminster person of interest”, and she was given my name. But…the interview, over the telephone, was not to be about the Maltings, it had to be about me!

One minute before I was due to be on, Maggie phoned – I was at home in Hampshire. Maggie was calling on a telephone from an office at the Radio Station, and she was crystal clear. Then she said, I am just going to transfer to the studio telephone, whereupon it was as though her voice was 100 meters away. I could now only hear the sound of Maggie’s voice, not the words that she was speaking.

So, my answer to Maggie’s first question was “I cannot hear you Maggie”. Clearly Maggie did not hear me either, because, she failed to react to this, and nothing changed. Luckily, ahead of the interview, I had been sent a list of the sort of questions Maggie intended to ask, so I was more or less able to guess each question from the odd word I managed to pick up.

I do not suppose we had that many listeners, but when my response to one of her questions was “I first got involved in the Barley trade at the age of four”, those listeners might have thought they too were having problems with their hearing. My answer was no exaggeration, and I did go on to explain.

None of our encounters with broadcasting from the Maltings have ever gone without a hitch. Most notably, and it is a few years ago now, was Michael Portillo’s Victorian Railway Journeys. Michael and his team travelled to Warminster by rail, of course, but when they got off the train, they managed to leave the film camera behind!

I think I should probably stick to the written (printed) word.

Present Champion…

Congratulations to Rick Lyall of Frome Brewing Company Ltd, who has just been awarded a Double Gold Medal at the European Beer Challenge 2021 for his Triple IPA, appropriately named “You Can Call Me V”.

All made with Warminster’s finest Maris Otter Malt. We have been claiming that our malt is just getting better and better, and Rick has just gone out there and offered us the best endorsement we could wish for. Thank you Rick. What’s next?

…Absent Monarch.

I have ‘a bee in my bonnet’ about the absence of traditional Maltings in our national culture. If I can draw an analogy with Watermills, for example, which appear everywhere. From George Eliot’s literary masterpiece, “The Mill on the Floss; to John Constable’s iconic paintings of mills, from Flatford Mill (Suffolk) to Parham Mill (Dorset); and Ronald Binge’s delightful musical composition “The Watermill”. But where are the Maltings?

The best that I have come across is Thomas Hardy’s fleeting inclusion of Warren’s Malthouse in “Far from the Madding Crowd”.

Yes, I suppose Benjamin Britten’s conversion of Snape Maltings, on the east Suffolk coast, into an outstanding concert hall, acts as some sort of beacon, but I doubt it raises many question about the Maltings former life.

But on the other hand, barley, and occasionally malt, pops up all over the place. From A E Houseman’s

“…and malt does more than Milton can,
to justify God’s ways to man.”

to Sting’s evocative song “Among the Fields of Barley”. So, forgive me for reproducing the following poem from a recent multi award winning book “All Among the Barley” by Melissa Harrison. It conjures up some of the enormous stature that barley (and malt) should command, in my view. It is why I am so disappointed that Maltings, and/or the malting process itself, as far as I am aware, has not captured more attention in the past.

“The Spring she is a young maid who does not know her mind,
The Summer is a tyrant of a most ungracious kind.
But the Autumn is an old friend that does the best he can
to reap the golden barley, and cheer the heart of man.

All among the barley, oh who would not be blithe,
when the free and happy barley is smiling on the scythe!
The wheat, he’s like a rich man, all sleek and well to do,
the oats, they are a pack of girls, all lithe and dancing too;
the rye is like a miser, he’s sulky, lean and small,
but the free and golden barley is the monarch of them all.

All among the barley, oh who would not be blithe,
when the free and happy barley is smiling on the scythe.”

Well, at least, “the free and happy barley” is pouring through our Maltings again, and with pubs about to open properly once more, even, if we are lucky, without ‘safe distancing’ marring the experience. Perhaps then, we, too, will all be smiling.

Stay safe and enjoy this lovely summer.

Robin Appel

Edition 33: Friends of Warminster Maltings

Edition 33: Friends of Warminster Maltings

20 Years, Not Out!

Three weeks ago, on February 13th, I celebrated 20 years at Warminster Maltings. I well remember that afternoon in 2001, sat in my solicitor’s office in Southampton, waiting for the phone call from the vendor’s solicitors in Warminster, to tell me “it’s yours!”

“Yours!” yes, the responsibility for Britain’s oldest working Maltings, at that point, hanging on to life by its fingertips. The infrastructure was minimal, a lot of the machinery was in a very parlous state, some of the electrics were the original and quite frightening, and the buildings were all in a very sorry state of repair. But not anymore!

Within a year of my new tenure, the Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced Small Brewers Relief (SBR), a substantial cut in excise duty for micro-brewers that, overnight, enabled them to sell beer as cheaply as the global brands.

Very quickly, an extraordinary revolution took place across the U.K. brewing industry. Fueled by the already hugely influential Campaign for Real Ale, a whole new generation of Craft Breweries suddenly sprung into being, and the rest is history, as they say.

But, just as no-one saw SBR coming, neither did we predict a pandemic, and ‘lockdown’. My 20 years at Warminster has been bookended by two extraordinary events, the first, which made us, and the second, which has attempted to break us.

However, as we, hopefully, shake off Covid, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is now threatening to abolish SBR! As I stated in my ‘tweet’ of 2 weeks ago, the “adventure…is far from over!”

Organic Ales, Atomic Sales?

Even before Britain’s Soil Association announced two weeks ago that the U.K. ‘year-on-year’ Organic sales in 2020 had risen by a huge 12.6%, we have, since Christmas, noticed a surge in enquiries for Organic Malts. These have not just been enquiries from potentially new customers, but also from existing customers, considering brewing Organic beers for the first time. And of the latter group, I am particularly pleased to announce, we have already dispatched the first new delivery of Organic malt.

So, what is going on?

Well, I can only speculate. There is no doubt the pandemic has, for the time being, caused a lot of people to think more about healthier eating…and drinking.

“My weekly contribution to that 12.6% Organic growth”

At the same time, I think David Attenborough’s fantastic Sunday evening television has also caused wide concern over the state of our Planet, from plastics in the sea, to soil erosion brought about by industrial farming practices.

Some of our brewer customers have reported that since they have been operating door step deliveries, they have been surprised at the number and repeated requests for Organic beers. This, of course, may have been something that has been sought after prior to the pandemic, but we can imagine that neither landlords of pubs or multiple retailers were ever likely to pass that information on. Their obsession with ‘bargain basement’ prices always takes precedent.

Lastly, of course, under-employed brewers, it seems, have had time to think about changes in strategy, perhaps to meet younger people’s aspirations, or just to achieve a point of difference compared to supermarket/pub chain brands.

Warminster Maltings is one of only three U.K. maltsters with Organic accreditation, and we have the widest choice of Organic malts available. So, it is a trend we are keen to foster. At the moment, most of the Organic malting barley produced every year in this country, is sold to maltsters and brewers on the Continent, and a significant percentage of Warminster’s Organic malt sales goes exactly the same way. You might agree that it is more than high time for this situation to change.

Roadmap to Freedom

As long as the vaccine rollout does not lose any of its early momentum, it seems possible we may achieve some sort of amnesty with coronavirus by June. This would suggest that at the Maltings we are going to get busy again in May. It is somewhat ironic that just as we would normally be looking forward to a summer holiday, this year we will be looking forward to going back to work properly.

So, we are cracking on with any maintenance engineering projects that we would normally slot into our summer schedule, when, due to higher temperatures, we cannot work the floors quite as hard as we do in winter.

For starters, we have renewed part of the upper floor of Floors 1. Some cracks appeared in the concrete, so we made the decision to take part of the floor down, and re-build it. We inserted new RSJ’s and timber work, and we are just waiting to pump in and lay fresh concrete, and then that should be good for another 100 years!

Our engineering contractors fitted the new metal structures, otherwise we did all the rest of the work ourselves.

We are so lucky to have those skills within the workforce, albeit this was a policy decision we took many moons ago.

We also have two large conveyors that need attention, one requiring a complete replacement. So, we are racing ahead to get all this work done. It is almost like preparing for a new ‘opening’, which, of course, it almost is. After all that we have had to go through, it really is exciting. I just hope beyond hope that this time, this does not turn out to be another false dawn.

Meanwhile, please stay safe.

Robin Appel