Raise a glass
PUBLISHED: 06:42 11 August 2014
If you ask people the main ingredient of wine, the national drink of France, you can bet that 99pc will correctly answer grapes. Yet if you ask them to name the main ingredient of beer and whisky - national drinks of Britain - you'll be lucky if 15pc get it right.
The answer, of course, is malt.
Here in Norfolk, awareness may be above average – after all we are sitting in what is arguably the best malting barley growing region in the world. At this time of year you can’t miss the fields of swaying gold and you’ll be lucky if you’ve never been held up by a tractor on its way to harvest.
Some of this harvested grain will be transported to other parts of the country, however, much is destined – as it has been since 1870 - for the independent maltster Crisp Malting Group in the north Norfolk village of Great Ryburgh. Gone is Great Ryburgh railway station, used for over a century to transport malt to the coast and down the Great Eastern Line. But the malting remains, and malt is still, to this day, one of our region’s key products. About two million tonnes of malting barley are grown each year in Britain, much from Norfolk and neighbouring counties.
“The light soils and local climate provide ideal growing conditions,” says Bob King, commercial director at Crisp. “As we’ve seen over the past few years, the weather is far from predictable – which is where the skills of farmers come in. Whatever the weather over the growing season, we still need top quality malting barley. Fortunately the growers in the region seem to be pretty adept at supplying us with what we need, and we’re keen to support them. We buy from a partnership of around 280 local farms.”
Malt is not, as commonly supposed, a variety of grain - simply put, it is grain that has been malted. It is cereal grain that’s been steeped in water, allowed to germinate, then kilned. This ancient process changes the character of the malt, adding taste and colour and developing natural enzymes that will convert starch into fermentable sugars – essential for brewing and distilling. Although most malt is malted barley, there’s growing demand for malted wheat, rye and oats. Malt can be turned into flour, flakes or kibbles and used as an ingredient in bread, biscuits, cakes, breakfast cereals and even ice-cream. It can be crushed (and is now known as grist) to be used in the production of beer and whisky.
The malting process
All that is needed to make malt is grain, water, air and heat. When grain arrives at the maltings, there are three stages to the malting process:
1 Steeping – the grain is soaked in water in large vessels for 48 hours.
2 Germinating – now the grain is hydrated, it takes four or five days to grow rootlets and needs to be turned to stop the sprouting shoots clinging together.
3 Kilning – the sprouted grain or “green malt” is transferred to large kilns to be dried by warm air. This halts the germination process and generates flavour and colour. These vary according to the temperature of the kiln and the length of time the grain spends in there.
With the demand for malt, large scale modern equipment to turn and heat the grain is essential. “Most of our malt is produced like this,” says Graham Taylor, production director at Crisp, “using the traditional method, but on a large scale. However at Great Ryburgh we also have one of the few remaining traditional floor maltings where the malt is still turned by hand. Some brewers and distillers make a point of visiting Great Ryburgh during the time their consignment is on the floor, just so they can take a turn in raking their own malt.”
We may be drinking less beer than we did in the 1970s, but there are now more than 1,200 breweries in Britain, the highest number for decades and some 35 in Norfolk alone. Half of the malt produced in the country is used in the production of Scotch whisky - 90pc of which is exported. “Exports of whisky contribute a mind-boggling £135 per second to the UK balance of trade,” says Graham Taylor of Crisp. “Again this is made possible by the main ingredient - malt. Its significance to the whole of our region, let alone to the village of Great Ryburgh, is something worth raising a glass to!”