Drink: A trend that goes against the grain: New varieties of high-yielding barley are harming our beer and whisky, says Michael Jackson

Would the vineyards of Bordeaux abandon cabernet sauvignon because of a grape that gave them more fruits per hectare? I doubt it. Everyone knows the grape variety is a fundamental element in the aroma and palate of a fine wine. Such a clear view does not prevail among the farmers who grow the barley that is malted to make beer and whisky. Nor among all of the maltsters, brewers and distillers. Perhaps it should.

For decades, a barley variety called Maris Otter, grown on the south coast and in East Anglia and on the Plain of York, was the foundation of the finest English ales. Brewers argued whether the best grew from the chalk soil of Hampshire or emerged through the sea mists of north Norfolk. The latter was always dispatched from the railway station at the Norfolk town of Docking, an appellation that was as famous among brewers as some communes are to wine-lovers. A variety called Golden Promise, short- strawed to bounce back against the winds and rains of Scotland, was cherished by more northerly brewers and by whisky distillers.

It is true that the differences between grape varieties are more dramatic than those that distinguish barleys, but the latter cannot be disregarded. For some years there has been a struggle to save Maris Otter, and it is by no means certain that Golden Promise will survive. As percentages of the malting barley grown in Britain, both are down to single figures.

National brewers scarcely use Maris Otter, but its devotees among the regionals sound like a roll of honour, from Adnams, Brakspear's and Cain's all the way to Young's. In the whisky industry, Glengoyne and Macallan have conspicuously pursued the cause of Golden Promise.

Estimates vary depending upon the region, but a farmer's yield, and profits, might rise by 25-30 per cent if he abandoned Maris Otter or Golden Promise in favour of a more 'modern' variety. The newer barleys also perform better when it comes to yielding malt sugars and, ultimately, alcohol. Unfortunately, they seem, in my experience as a consumer, to make thinner-tasting beers and whiskies, with less intensity of sweetness and fruitiness, and shallower flavours. Many brewers, and some distillers, agree. As with other fruits of the soil - apples and strawberries, for example - more can mean less.

The newer varieties' price advantage and greater yield of alcohol are not significant on the small scale of operation of an independent brewer or lone distiller, but the pennies gained soon mount when they are multiplied in a national group.

As the big brewers and distillers begin to favour newer varieties, the industry's choices send a message to maltsters and farmers: forget about such traditional classics as Maris Otter and Golden Promise.

As the national groups have concentrated their efforts into ever- larger breweries, so batch sizes in the malting industry have become bigger. A modern mechanised maltings finds it hard to handle the modest quantities of Maris Otter required by small breweries, however respected they may be.

Not every new variety turns out even to be usable, and the industry gives farmers guidance through the Institute of Brewing's Barley Committee. This body has, in recent years, ceased to recommend Maris Otter and Golden Promise as being worthwhile choices for the grower. Told by smaller brewers and some maltsters that there was still a demand for Maris Otter, three barley merchants, in Hampshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, formed a consortium to ensure seed stocks from the original breeder. This may have saved the variety. In this respect, the brewers are a step ahead of the distillers.

While brewers and distillers often have passionate loyalties to different barleys, they find it hard to explain the varieties' impact on flavour. I asked David Waller, who looks after quality control at Adnams, why his brewery was so loyal to Maris Otter (also insisting that it be grown in the brewery's home region, East Anglia). 'Because it makes our beer taste like Adnams,' he told me, ignoring elements such as water, hops and yeast. Adnams' Extra was named Champion Beer at the last Great British Beer Festival, so the company must be doing something right.

Because Maris Otter has been used for so long, a head brewer still employing it today has probably no experience of any other variety. Asked about Maris Otter, most loyalists allude to the worrying unpredictability of beer-making. They say something like this: 'I have always used Maris Otter. It produces a brew that ferments well, and results in a bright, clean-tasting, full-bodied beer. Using this barley, I sleep well at night.'

Big brewers also want sound slumber, but have access to more technical tricks, such as wheat starch or industrially cultivated fungal enzymes to ensure the desired level of clarity and fermentation. They use one variety of barley for four or five years, then something 'better' comes along. The pace of change is quickening, so new varieties hardly have time to prove their worth. This is not so much breeding as genetic engineering.

The need to extract the maximum alcohol from the barley is even more pressing in the production of whisky, which is 10 or 12 times stronger than beer, and some distillers feel the impact on flavour is much more arguable. They suggest that the exhaustive nature of the process, and the high level of alcohol, leave little room for the tastes of barley or malt.

Macallan learnt not long ago how wrong-headed is this view. When the Macallan whisky emerges from the still, it already has a decidedly rich character, even before it has been aged in sherry casks. Not long ago, a batch limped out with none of this voluptuousness. In a blindfold tasting, I was able to spot the lesser spirit with no hesitation.

The company almost dismantled its distillery, searching for a mechanical fault that might have diminished the spirit, but could find nothing amiss. Then someone suggested looking in the malt barn. A supplier had quietly given the distillery a 50-50 blend of Golden Promise and a widely used but lesser variety. Even at this ratio, the whisky was unsaleable as The Macallan.

Macallan may find other varieties that deliver the required richness, but would prefer its first choice. The company is working hard to persuade farmers to cultivate Golden Promise, pointing out that it is much hardier than some of the newer varieties.

'It is no good a farmer getting a bigger yield if wind or rain at harvest time flattens his crop,' Frank Newlands, production manager, says. 'I hope we are giving good advice, because we want to buy our barley locally. The distillers and farmers live side by side and we are a community.'

Macallan could perhaps secure its supply of Golden Promise at a price, but is unwilling to add further to the cost of its whisky. Small brewers and distillers already work at a price disadvantage to their bigger competitors.

What price, though, a single malt that could be identified by the connoisseur as having been made from Golden Promise grown on a wet and windy north-facing hillside close to the Moray Firth?

(Photograph omitted)

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    ICE ICT: Lead Business Consultant

    £39,000: ICE ICT: Specific and detailed knowledge and experience of travel sys...

    Day In a Page

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most