Booming demand for spring barley will benefit Norfolk farmers

Specialist winter barley growers in Norfolk have produced a vintage quality crop, said a leading maltster.

Bob King, commercial director of Crisp Malting Group, told members of Holt & District Farmers' Club at the 63rd annual meeting, that it has almost been a 'vintage' year.

'We will take in almost everything we can locally and will continue to buy local barley. We've ended taking this barley into outside stores at cost because it is just such good quality. We've got farm stores with barley all over the place,' he said.

After the quality problems last year, which forced the Great Ryburgh maltster to move large tonnages from the West Country, there had been plenty of low-nitrogen barley grown across the region.

Last year they had high average nitrogen levels with Flagon at 1.82, and Maris Otter at 1.75. 'This year Flagon averaged 1.55 and the Maris Otter 1.54,' said Mr King.

'We got four times as much useable Maris Otter this year than last year. In fact, we will take in the largest amount of Maris Otter as a business for at least ten and it might be 15 years which is a reflection on the markets we have got,' he added.

A large proportion of this specialist malting barley will be exported to the United States, said Mr King.

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For future spring barley production, the prospects were very bright. Crisp Malting Group, which had backed the variety, Concerto found a home for all the crop last year despite high nitrogen levels, averaging overall 2.01 but 2.4 in one case. That batch went to Scotland for enzyme malt.

'This year Concerto has averaged 1.49 and Tipple 1.50 – the lowest average in the spring barleys in the past 10 years,' he added. Tonnage had shifted from 50:50 to two-thirds Concerto and the balance Tipple.

'It will stand our business in really good stead because we've got large quantities of low nitrogen Concerto which is exactly what we wanted. We have had our first year of reasonably quantity of Husky as well which is destined for a specialist market.'

Mr King said that the outlook for winter barley was bleak. 'The industry bought 800,000 tonnes of winter barley 10 years ago but 250,000 tonnes last year. I don't think that we bought any more this year even though the crop was twice the size. Spring barley has taken that gap.'

'The good and bad news for barley growers is the continuing decline in the winter-sown acreage but soaring demand for spring varieties. It is falling dramatically quickly because beer production is going down.

'Cask ale is probably sitting there holding its own which is a good thing because it takes Maris Otter and some of the low nitrogen Flagon.'

Significantly, one of the largest brewers, Carlsberg has moved from winter varieties to spring-sown Null-Lox barley. While there was a demand for below 1.6 nitrogen winter barley for cask real ale and regional brewers, demand for winter barley was falling. About 80,000 tonnes of Null-Lox malt, partly from Crisp's plants, would go to Carlsberg.

Demand for spring and low nitrogen barley was growing quickly. 'The great winner at the moment is the distilling market. Distilling production in Scotland is just going up in a straight line.

'It has outstripped the complete malting capacity in Scotland in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and the demand is going up and up.' The demand in Scotland was being met by barley and malt shipped from England.

Mr King said that half the production from the firm's three East Anglian plants was going to Scotland. 'This is where all the Concerto has gone. And it will only carry on.'

The distillers only wanted spring-barley malt because they could not use winter varieties.

He said that the UK malting industry was working to capacity. 'We've got more demand than we need.'

Organic barley, admittedly a small market, had doubled in size in our business in the past three years. 'We're trying to find a little bit more organic malting barley,' he said.