Brewers and ale lovers prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Maris Otter barley

Woodforde's managing director Rupert Farquharson. Picture: James Bass

Woodforde's managing director Rupert Farquharson. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2014

A Norfolk barley variety which is beloved by craft brewers around the world will celebrate its 50th harvest next year – but what makes Maris Otter so special?

Tom Rivett from H Banham and Rob Moody from Crisp Maltings before the 2014 Maris Otter harvest

Tom Rivett from H Banham and Rob Moody from Crisp Maltings before the 2014 Maris Otter harvest - Credit: Submitted

Hidden away in a secretive corner of north Norfolk is a four-acre field which, to the untrained eye, looks much the same as any other.

But despite its unassuming appearance, this hallowed ground has been sacred to beer buffs for half a century – as it is home to the mother crop of the revered Maris Otter malting barley.

And with the anniversary crop now sown, plans are under way to celebrate next year's 50th harvest of a grain whose popularity continues to grow on the back of a worldwide craft brewing boom.

The rising demand is based on the traditional heritage of a variety which makes quintessentially British beer, and whose appeal is firmly rooted in East Anglia.

In particular, light soils, sea breezes and sunny climate combine to make perfect growing conditions in Norfolk, which is why most of the country's supply is harvested and malted here.

And the quality is guaranteed by the rigorous process of 're-selection' at the mother field, which ensures the grain retains its perfect pedigree.

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'Regular re-selection is just part of the work we do to ensure the purity of the strain,' said Tom Rivett, director of seed merchant H Banham, based in Hempton near Fakenham.

'The fact the whole field has been accredited by Defra under their strict guidelines is good – but as purists, it's not enough for us.

'So we still regularly take a 30sqm patch and go through it manually, checking each and every ear of barley. Anything that isn't a perfect specimen of the Maris Otter variety is discarded. The remaining flawless grain from that patch is harvested separately and used to reseed the mother field.'

Within seven years of each re-selection, the majority of the Maris Otter grown in Britain, around 17,000 acres of it, will be descended from seeds sown at that secretly-located 'plot within a plot'.

'It's a big responsibility,' said Mr Rivett. 'But as custodians of the variety, we're utterly committed to ensuring its integrity. The cultivation procedures and all the checks we undertake are extremely rigorous.'

Steve LePoidevin is sales director at Crisp Malting Group, based at Great Ryburgh, which is the largest supplier of Maris Otter malt to the brewing industry and buys 315,000 tonnes of malting barley per year – most of it from a network of more than 250 growers in Norfolk.

He said the number of brewers buying Maris Otter from Crisp has doubled in two years.

'The success of craft brewing has led to a huge increase in the demand for Maris Otter malt,' he said. 'Demand is not restricted to Britain. We get calls every day from craft breweries in the US, Japan, Spain and other countries who keen to use Crisp Maris Otter in their ale brewing.

'Brewers want the assurance that this is the same Maris Otter malt that was first produced some 49 years ago. We can guarantee that courtesy of the many checks and balances, including measurement against control samples of the original crop.'

Rupert Farquharson is managing director of the Woodforde's Norfolk Ales in Woodbastwick in Norfolk, which uses Maris Otter barley sourced from local farmers by Banham's and malted by Crisp. He said: 'Our philosophy is to use only the very best ingredients and invariably this is Maris Otter.

'No doubt about it, Maris Otter is the Rolls Royce of malting barleys.'

Maris Otter is a low-nitrogen winter barley introduced in 1965, specifically for cask ales. Its popularity wavered in the 1980s, but the rights to the variety have been owned by two grain merchants since the early 1990s and under the expert watch of seed specialists George Maule and Neville Carter it has gone from strength to strength.

Mr Carter's son-in-law Bob King, who is now group commercial director at Crisp, said: 'My father-in-law and his business partner took on the risk of re-selecting the variety. They reinvigorated the stock, and there is going to be 40,000 tonnes of it this year. It is very important to Norfolk, and to us as the biggest user of it.'

Malt, a central ingredient in the brewing and distilling trade, is made from germinated cereal grains that have been dried.

When it began producing malt in 1870, Crisp Maltings used a traditional floor-malting process which, although labour intensive and expensive, still accounts for 1pc of the firm's output today because it maximises the flavours demanded by the craft brewing sector. The majority of modern production is carried out in vast computer-controlled steeping and germination vessels.

This weekend saw the conclusion of the Norwich Beer Festival, organised by the Norwich and Norfolk Branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), which has become a favourite highlight of the year for many brewers and beer drinkers

On the festival's opening night, the Woodforde's brewery claimed two prestigious awards – Best Bitter for Nelson's Revenge and Best Old Ale for Norfolk Nog. Both are brewed using Maris Otter malt.

Head brewer Neil Bain and brewery manager Bruce Ash accepted the awards on behalf of the brewing team.

Among the events planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary is the Maris Otter 50 beer festival at The Open venue in Norwich on September 18 and 19 next year. It will feature 50 debut cask ales from 50 different breweries, from Norfolk and around the world.