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

Michael Jackson
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:06

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)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments