Barley to Beer

Barley to Beer

Thornbridge brewers visit the farm where our Maris Otter is grown.

A couple of weeks ago, Dominic and I ventured to Norfolk to look at how our barley crop was doing.  We only use the Maris Otter variety for our base pale malt, for the main reason that I believe that it makes the best beer.  Apart from the fact it is low in nitrogen and high in brewing extract, it has a rich, malty sweetness you don’t get in other pale malts.  A winter barley sown in late September/early October, Maris Otter was bred in 1965, bred by crossing two older varieties, Proctor and Pioneer, to specifically produce something that would give consistently high quality malt for the British beer market.  It’s the only barley variety to have been bred for its brewing capabilities – all other barleys are bred for characteristics such as yield and consistency.  It is low yielding and comparatively non-uniform, so commands a higher price at harvest time.  Unfortunately, this is what makes it a high-risk crop for the farmers, who generally prefer Spring-grown barley.  If brewers like us didn’t buy it, it simply wouldn’t be grown any more.  For the 2024 crop, around 55-60 farms were growing Maris Otter, and it’s from these farms that our maltster takes in the grain to produce our malt for brewing. 


Richard and Jonathan from the seed merchants who own the variety, Robin Appel Ltd, met us down in Norfolk, with our good friend Jamie Ramshaw from Simpsons malt and we caught up on how the crop has been doing.  Despite a difficult sowing season thanks to the inordinate amount of rain we had in Autumn, overall the Maris ‘got away’ okay and the crop is thankfully looking pretty good, although it was waiting for the warmth and sunshine that finally arrived this week.  We visited two farms while we were there, the first one being Ringer and Son, an arable farm in Rougham, near to Great Massingham.  Among his fields of peas and sugar beet, Allen Ringer, the farmer, talked us through the challenges he had faced over the past year and how the rainfall had produced huge logistical and financial challenges for himself and other farmers.  His two large fields of Maris Otter barley looked in good health, sown in October and around six weeks away from harvest.  It was interesting to see large sections of the field given over to a ‘Legume fallow seed mix’ – a sustainable farming initiative area with vetch, clovers and birdsfoot trefoil plants growing.  Allen explained that this section would provide nectar-rich flowers and large amounts of pollen for bumblebees, hoverflies and the like, while also helping to control problems such as black-grass, a competitive weed.


We were also lucky enough to visit Branthill farms, in Wells-next-the-sea, a successfully diversified barley farm with ‘glamping’, plum orchards, an excellent little brewery called Malt Coast Brewery and a perfectly-curated real ale shop.  The farmer here, Bruin Maufe, explained to us why he was passionate about growing Maris Otter barley, something that his father done before him, and how he used it in his brews here on the farm.  The fields he farms, sandy loam soil sat on chalk, are perfect for growing a great crop of Maris, and benefit from low rainfall and Spring sea mists; the maritime climate that makes British-grown barley the best in the world.  Again, brilliant sustainable farming practises were in evidence here too, with a beautiful nectar-rich band of wild flower seed such as ox-eye daisies sown around the perimeter, as well as a further band of what he described as ‘cultivated unsown’ – this allows whatever seeds are naturally in the soil to germinate and cover the land, in this case a huge amount of red poppies.


It's important to remember that growing a great crop of Maris Otter is only the first step and the whole process of producing great malt is a partnership, starting with the seed merchant who ensures only the best ears for seed propagation, the farmer, who spends 9 months growing the crop and then the maltster who malts the barley, generating the enzymes necessary to convert the barley starches in sugar.  The barley has to be steeped, germinated and then kilned to perfection, which is why we buy our Maris Otter from Simpsons, who have a state-of-the-art maltings at Tivetshall in Norfolk.  Having walked the process at the maltings with their employees and seen their dedication to quality and consistency, we know we’ve got the right partners to help us produce the best beer we can and it’s why we can trust them to deliver our Maris Otter week after week – over a thousand tonnes last year!

Written by Rob Lovatt, Head Brewer/ Production Director


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