Edition 29: Friends of Warminster Maltings

Edition 29: Friends of Warminster Maltings

Towards Recovery

Well, we continue to make, and deliver malt, and, I am pleased to report, at an improved volume from that at the outset of ‘lockdown’. Understandably, our sales in April and May were quite diabolical, but as we worked our way through May more brewers began phoning up and placing orders. The month of June saw a marked improvement, albeit still significantly short of our original budgeted sales.

Warminster Maltings - Traditional English Floor Malt

Ever since the date, July 4th, began to be talked about as the possible re-opening date for pubs, brewers began gearing up for supply. Their larger customers were issuing commands “Prepare to accept orders”, so they needed to oblige. Then, when, much later than hoped for, July 4th was confirmed, along with the reduction to 1m social distancing, and the freedom to go into the hostelry itself, the feasibility of pubs opening was enormously improved, as well as extended to many more establishments. Are we on the road back to some sort of normality?

It is unlikely things will be quite the same. For starters, some pubs have already closed their doors for good. Added to this, a lot of Craft Brewers have established ‘direct sales’, both click & collect and home deliveries. They like this market, and most of them tell me they are determined to hang on to it. Hooray, I say! Having beer delivered to my door, as my wine has been for the last 30 years, is very attractive. Besides, on the back of this, per capita consumption almost certainly increases!

But a good pub is the best way to shift serious volumes of beer (and malt, of course). So, we wish good luck to all those that are re-opening their doors and hope that the Great British Public apply plenty of common sense in responding to this hospitality. Then, hopefully, our malt sales will continue to improve.

Grain to Glass

 A unique feature of Warminster Maltings offering to Craft Brewers and Craft Distillers is our ability to link their malt supplies directly to farmers producing both the varieties of barley they prefer, and, more importantly from a marketing point of view, in the right location. The latter effectively providing a sort of “protected designation of origin” if you like. We gave these initiatives the label “Warranty of Origin” quite a few years ago, and we manage them for a number of customers, of both denominations, right across the UK.

At the beginning of July, I met two of our Brewery customers at their respective barley fields, so that together (suitably distanced) we could step into the crops and assess the potential quality of the grain just ahead of harvest.

The first meeting on July 1st was in West Sussex where West Marden Farms grows a winter barley named Craft, specifically for Hepworth & Co Brewers Ltd, situated at Pulborough in Sussex. Barley from this farm has, in particular, been underwriting Hepworth’s ‘Sussex’ Pale Ale for a number of years now, all courtesy of Warminster Maltings.

The barley, which was about 10 days away from harvest when we visited, was quite impressive, featuring long ears, and bold grains. Martin Edney, the farmer, was optimistic about the yield of grain, basing his judgement on the previous harvest. So as long as the sun keeps shining that looks like an early and very satisfactory result.

Left to right: In the sunshine, inspecting a crop of Spring Barley for comparison, Robin Appel, Martin Edney, and Andy Hepworth, managing director, Hepworth & Co.

The second meeting on July 2nd was in Gloucestershire, at a field sat alongside the Fosse Way, farmed Organically by the Prince of Wales’ Duchy Home Farm, near Tetbury. This is a particularly special field of barley, a field of the heritage variety Plumage Archer, a Spring sown barley, which Duchy Home Farm have grown for many years now. Of course, this is the famous variety bred at Warminster in 1905, the first genetically true variety of barley in the world, which went on to change the whole course of barley breeding in the 20th century and beyond.

My brewer customer in this instance was Stroud Brewery Ltd, based in Stroud, who buy some of this malt each year for a particular export order for Japan which they supply as bottled beer. Again, this crop of barley looked very promising and Duchy Home Farm manager, David Wilson, was also modestly optimistic.

Left to right: Dodging the showers in the Plumage Archer, Robin Appel, David Wilson,
and Greg Pilley, principal of Stroud Brewery.

At both meetings, understandably, the hot topic of conversation was the re-opening of pubs. Brewers are all experiencing a sudden surge of orders (as is Warminster Maltings for malt) but publicans are nervous, and many are going to stand back and see how, as they put it, “the big boys” get on, before they open their doors. Even with all the Covid-19 secure guidelines in place, the big question is will the customers still come along?

Not a Lot More

I am afraid there is no more to report this time. With no projects (all on hold), no events and no visitors (disallowed), and ‘our football team’ firmly on the touchline, my editorial content is seriously diminished. However, the chairman of Warminster Town F.C., Pete Russell, tells me his players have started training. It brings to mind a quotation, from Oscar Wilde, perhaps an appropriate note to end on “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars!”

Stay safe.

Robin Appel

Watching the Fields of Gold

Watching the Fields of Gold

Fields of Gold

Following the Barley journey from seed to beer

“…among the fields of barley, among the fields of gold”

Written by Sting, magically sung, and recorded by Eva Cassidy, Fields of Gold, evokes the image of a mature barley crop, in July, ears of grain bent over, gently swaying in the summer breeze. This is our raw material, and the beginning of a journey, a journey that is the story of beer.

So for 2020, we are going on this journey, and following a crop of Spring sown malting barley planted in a field at Norton Bavant, just outside Warminster. We will track this crop through it’s growth stages to harvest, and hopefully, from there to our Maltings, and ending up in a glass (or two) of local beer.

Warminster Maltings - Vienna Malt

Planet Spring Barley

March 31st

The story begins…

The fields at Norton Bavant had been left since the previous crop of wheat was harvested on the 1st September 2019. Under normal circumstances, the ground would have been ploughed in January, but the wet weather prevented this. At last, a deep plough to bury the wheat stubble and any weeds, and to help dry out the soil. This is followed by 2 passes of a disc harrow. We just need a few days of sunshine and our field will be perfectly ready for sowing.

April 9th

Our field at Norton Bavant is planted with a variety of malting barley named Planet, which is a very popular brewing variety. After the incessant winter rains, the soil has at last dried out to create a perfect seedbed, and still within the acknowledged timeframe for quality malting barley.

April 19th

10 days in, and the barley is sprouting already. Lines are begining to form and the fields show their first signs of turning green.

April 29th

After nearly 6 months of winter rains, our barley field has been drained of any naturally occurring “soil residual nitrogen”. So artificial fertiliser needs to be added. But this must be carefully gauged, in order to give plenty of green leaf and stem extension, followed by long ears of grain.

It is applied early in the crop cycle, because what we do not want, is too much nitrogen in the harvested barley! The grain nitrogen of top quality malting barley needs to be low in order to meet our expectation of that crystal clear beer in the glass

May 1st

Our barley field has enjoyed 3 weeks of almost perfect growing conditions, lots of warm sunshine, and a little rain to freshen it up. It will now quickly lose its spiky appearance as the leaves expand and fold over, forming a complete crop canopy which intercepts maximum sunlight, and shades out any weeds.

June 9th

Our crop of Planet barley has made tremendous growth. The awns (the long spikes on the tip of each grain) are beginning to appear, followed by the ears of grain themselves.

We are looking for 26 – 28 grains per ear, and based on up to 2 grain bearing stems per by plant, from a seed rate of up to 75kgs/acre, we can expect a yield of around 3 tonnes of barley per acre. That will be a good result.

Edition 28: Friends of Warminster Maltings

Edition 28: Friends of Warminster Maltings

 

Extraordinary Times

 I have now been the custodian of Warminster Maltings for very nearly 20 years, and in that time I have never been away from it for more than 2/3 weeks. Suddenly, it is already 8 weeks since I last drove away from 39, Pound Street, albeit, I talk to my colleagues at the Maltings everyday. I suspect it will be even more weeks before I am able to return. But, of course, there has been a lot of changes there, but not the sort of developments I ever imagined reporting in this newsletter.

 

Open for Business!

 Following our Prime Minister’s announcement, back in March, that all Pubs, Bars, Restaurants and Cinemas had to close, you will not be surprised to learn that our malt sales fell off the proverbial cliff edge. Our bank was very quick to offer us financial support, if and when we needed it, and we took up their offer based on projected sales of just 20% of turnover for the next 6 months.

Three weeks later, a national survey of the Craft Brewing sector (www.siba.co.uk), concluded that across the country as a whole, beer sales had dropped by a whopping 82%, which supported our original worst case projection.

We have had to furlough 7 staff (of 17) in order to both respect ‘social distancing’ instructions, and leave enough to do for those remaining at work. We continue to make malt, but only at 25% of capacity. Most importantly, we are able to respect all government guidelines, and remain open for business! We are classified within the “key worker” category (food and drink), and all our staff, so far, remain safe and well. Equally important, those that are working are all happy to come to work each day. Warminster Maltings lives on.

 

Not for Nothing

Orders for malt continue to come in, and, I am pleased to report, at a little better than the 20% projected at the outset. Some of our customers have capitalised on the overwhelming demand for canned and bottled beers by the supermarkets. Others have re-invented their business and developed very successful ‘home delivery’ arrangements, and amongst these several have made newspaper headlines and on to the television news. You cannot get away from it, we British love our beer, and even more so when the sun is shining.

While thanking all those brewers who are able to continue supporting us, I think we need to recognise that this is unlikely to be just a temporary fix. There is everything to suggest pubs etc. are going to remain closed for a very long time. It is even suggested in the press that when pubs do re-open, if ‘social distancing’ measures are still recommended, these will not be practical in many establishments. Added to that, commentators suggest people will initially be frightened to go into a pub for a little while. So, Craft Brewers who have shut up shop for what they might have imagined was just for a few weeks, may need to review their situation

And I am pleased to report that there are some that are already doing this! We have customers who are re-opening their breweries, encouraged by what they see others have achieved. Not only that, we have two ‘new build’ projects who have opened, straight into the ‘home delivery’ market place! Surely if they, without any brand loyalty, can do it, probably a lot of others can too.

One of our customers has even gone as far as to say that they are making more money now than they ever made selling to pubs. I am not surprised – they have become retailers as opposed to wholesalers. For my home deliveries, I am paying as much money for 24 litres (48x500ml bottles) as some brewers might be selling 80 litres (2x40L casks) to pubs. Perhaps this is the new path for Craft Brewers, after all they can probably do this completely free of any competition from the ‘big brands’!

Let me point out, if you are being deprived of your beer, or would like to experience something a bit more special than the supermarket offerings, you can either access CAMRA’s online platform www.camra.org/pullingtogether or from the 6th May, CAMRA are launching their Brew2You app, both of these allow customers to search for local beer supplies, both click and collect, and delivered to your door. Do try one or other, and help to keep our Craft Beer sector going.

Doubtless, as the weeks and months roll forward, like many other commercial sectors, other innovative trading patterns will also evolve. And on the back of this, Warminster Maltings will continue to roll on.

Harvest Prospects 2020 

The incessant winter rains eventually gave way to give us the desired Spring sowing weather, and barley has all been planted within the acceptable timeframe to produce quality crops. On our website we are now following a crop of Spring malting barley planted on the edge of Warminster at Norton Bavant. This is a crop of a variety called Planet, a popular brewing barley, and the farmer, Matt Fry, is going to keep the crop to one side after harvest, so that it can be made into malt at Warminster, and, hopefully, end up in a range of local beers.

 

But before that, we could still have 5/6 months of 2019 crop barley to use up first. Not just us at Warminster Maltings, but right across the whole of the UK malting industry (2 million tonnes barley per annum)! This presents a huge problem for many farmers who grow malting barley in the expectation that it is taken into the Maltings immediately after harvest. Of course, the farming clock stops for no man!

My grain company (Robin Appel Ltd) has already secured substantially increased grain storage capacity in order to address the new harvest logjam, but this will add extra cost. Luckily, the UK malting industry is a very small group of less than a dozen companies, all of whom are very focused on the longer term, and the protection of their barley producers. So fear not, every effort will be made to marshal and protect our malting barley supplies going forward. All part of a combined effort to protect your favourite pint, even if it now has to be delivered to your doorstep!

What Next? 

I wish I knew! Even our Prime Minister, and his brilliant advisers, in their carefully measured responses at the daily Downing Street Press Conferences, sensibly avoid making any forecasts. For my part, this ‘Friends Newsletter’ will continue, every other month, to report ‘the here and now’.

Once upon a time (it seems like that now), we did have ambitious plans at the Maltings for this year, including continued improvements to the infrastructure. We also had everyone and everything in place, to commence in April, the final restoration project of our Grade 2* listed buildings. All of this, of course, has had to be put on hold. But once we get back into full production, we will be setting about this again with renewed vigour and urgency! Meanwhile, like the rest of the world, we just have to be patient. 

So, for the time being, please stay safe and well.

Robin Appel