Driving out from Norwich on a beautiful July day, I turned off the A1067 just before Pensthorpe Park and found myself looking down on a quintessentially English scene. Rolling away below me were the woods, fields and hedgerows surrounding the pretty village of Great Ryburgh, which lies by the upper reaches of River Wensum (and just over four miles from its source between Colkirk and Whissonsett). This landscape hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years (although the mill has gone) – and the crop is essentially the same: mainly wheat and barley.
Barley – specifically malting barley – was the reason I’d made the journey; however I wasn’t there to find out how malt is made. Instead, I wanted to find out what role Crisp Malting Group Ltd plays in the food and drink sector, which is such an important part of our economy. As well as being the UK’s largest manufacturing sector (accounting for some 7% of the UK economy, including £18.9bn in exports), food and drink makes up some 15% of Norfolk and Suffolk’s economy and employs 13% of the workforce, many of them in highly skilled jobs demanding good STEM qualifications.
Local firm supplying customers around the world
If you are a malt whisky or craft beer connoisseur you might have heard of Crisp Malting, the largest independently owned maltster in the country. It makes high quality malt and supplies whole grain and crushed cereals for the food and drink industry. Customers range from the finest distillers and largest brewers in the world to numerous craft breweries across the UK, including around 30 in Norfolk (such as Woodfordes, Panther, Fat Cat, Humpty Dumpty Norfolk Brewhouse, and Redwell Brewery).
The firm has five production sites: two in Scotland and three in East Anglia, including its largest in Great Ryburgh (which is also home to its head office and main research laboratory). “East Anglia is arguably the best farming region in the world for malting barley,” says Crisp’s Managing Director Euan Macpherson. “Light soils, low rainfall, and plenty of sunshine provide ideal growing conditions, while the fog that rolls in off the North Sea subtly enhances the quality of the grain.”
Working with growers, merchants and buyers
The interesting aspect of Crisp’s business from an industry supply chain point of view is the way it works with suppliers and buyers. This includes advising farmers on the different varieties of barley to grow based on the needs of its specialist customers, as well as the costs involved and any quality issues. “A few years ago we set up the ABC Growers Group with two local grain merchants – Adams & Howling and H Banhams (which owns 50% of the famous Maris Otter brand),” explains Bob King, Crisp’s Commercial Director. “ABC works with over 220 growers in Norfolk and Suffolk to develop long term supplies of specific malting barley strains. We now have rolling three-year contracts for around 100,000 tonnes – and some have been in place for the best part of 15 years.
“This approach is good for growers because it gives them greater certainty about the demand for their crop, as well as potential yields and returns on investment. The grain merchants, who are experts in constructing and pricing such contracts, benefit because it keeps them involved in the process and helps them develop their specialist market knowledge. Meanwhile we ensure we can source a high quality crop that meets our customers’ changing needs for different styles of malt.”
For example, Crisp produces a unique variety of malt called Clear Choice. “This comes from a low yield variety of barley,” explains Steve Le Poidevin, Sales Director, “which no one would have grown without a secure contract. However, we know it is ideal for producing malt that makes a great tasting, haze free beer, with a long shelf life. Because our customers appreciate these real benefits, we have the confidence to place long term orders with our growers.”
Crisp runs tours of its malting facilities and its customers’ breweries to give the ABC farmers a better understanding of the maltster’s and brewer’s needs. “Traditionally this never happened,” says Steve, “but about two-thirds of the ABC farmers have now visited one of our sites. This gives our technical director David Griggs an opportunity to discuss the various malting methods, including traditional ‘floor malting’, and how particular types of barley and malt suit specific styles of beer or whisky.”
Research and development
As well as a team of highly skilled crop and food scientists, Crisp has extensive technical capabilities in its Great Ryburgh laboratory. These include a micro-malting facility for testing small batches of new grain varieties and the ability to analyse up to 30 product attributes. It also works with various industry specialists to improve existing varieties of barley and to develop new ones.
Partners in this process include growers and The Morley Agricultural Foundation, which specialises in conducting field trials of arable crops for seed specialists, including researchers at the John Innes Institute (JIC). “Both Crisp and JIC have recently worked together on a conservation variety of barley called Chevalier, which was the first identified malting barley,” says Euan. “JIC is interested in it because it has certain characteristics that could be useful in breeding modern varieties; while we are interested because we have identified a market for small quantities of ‘heritage’ malts.”
This attention to detail and specialist knowledge helps explain why Crisp is the leading supplier of malt to the craft beer sector in the UK. The firm also supplies malt to about 70% of the micro-breweries in Japan (where there has been a surge of interest in craft beers). In addition, Crisp provides its customers with complete product traceability, which is particularly important for brewers and distillers who value provenance as well as quality.
Thank you Euan, Bob and Steve for your time and for a fascinating conversation.
Interesting link with Heygate Farms
In an earlier blog I talked about Heygate Farms’ Grow & Cook Awards. Heygate Farms are probably best known for growing the Norfolk Peer and Norfolk Keeper brands of potato. However, the group is also a major supplier of spring barley and rye to Crisp, who malt both. Some of the malted rye is sent on to Crisp’s sister company EDME in Essex, who further process it before sending some of it back to Heygates for use in its flour.
About this post
This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them (if you do, please give them a star or two).
If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.
Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.