FIRST LOOK: How hi-tech £11m mill makes Colman’s mustard powder
- Credit: NEIL DIDSBURY
When Jeremiah Colman first began producing his now world-famous mustard in Norwich he couldn’t have dreamt what the process might look like in the distant future.
But now Colman’s mustard is produced at a new £11m factory claiming to have the “most advanced milling process in the world”.
The state-of-the-art mustard mill at the Food Enterprise Park near Easton had a baptism of fire after the coronavirus pandemic struck within three months of its opening in January.
But after overcoming those challenges, bosses say they are now keen to maximise the potential of the mill – one of only three of its kind in the world, and the only one in Europe able to turn mustard seed into a “double superfine” flour.
The 65ft milling tower gives the height needed for the gravity-fed sieving and rolling process, aided by computer-controlled dryers, separators, cleaners and blenders.
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Any contaminants or blackened seeds are removed through a hi-tech optical sorter which scans every one of the millions of mustard seeds passing through the plant, with anything that is not the correct size, shape or colour being blown out of the pneumatic transfer system which carries grains up and down the tower – a world away from the 65-year-old mechanical systems used at the previous Colman’s plant near Trowse.
At the heart of the flour-making process is a “plan sifter”, a vibrating box the size of a small caravan containing 208 grading sieves, and a series of five pairs of rollers which work to break the seed and gradually reduce it down until the flour meets the exacting particle size specification which is critically important to the taste and texture of the Colman’s of Norwich brand, owned by Unilever.
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The finished powder, from three different types of mustard seed, is blended to the required recipe before reaching the packing line, salvaged from Carrow Works, where it is packed into tins to be exported around the world, or trucked up to Unilever’s factory in Burton-on-Trent to become the key ingredient in Colman’s mustard paste.
The site has the capacity to mill 6,000 tonnes of mustard seed per year – three times the current output to meet demand from Unilever, which was forced to look for a new home when drinks firm Britvic announced it was leaving the two companies’ shared site at Carrow Works in October 2017.
David Martin is chief executive of site operator Condimentum, formed by a consortium of East Anglian mustard and mint growers to establish a processing facility for their crops, which struck a long-term supply deal with Unilever to maintain the region’s historic links with the Colman’s name. He said after the challenge’s of the mill’s first year, the partners are looking for opportunities to expand.
“We are starting to understand how big the mustard flour market is,” he said. “We are the only superfine mustard milling plant in Europe. If you go to a supermarket and see their own-label mustard paste there is a very good chance that is just a ground mustard.
“We have an opportunity to go and not just produce mustard for other people as a finished product, but also to produce mustard as an ingredient, for instance mustard that might go into sausages or pizzas as a base. We are starting to size up those opportunities.
“Our intention is to grow beyond the Unilever volume, and they been hugely supportive of that aspiration, providing it is a different specification of product that doesn’t have the same taste and texture profile as the Colman’s mustard. We are ambitious to grow, but we need to manage that growth in a way that doesn’t conflict with Unilever’s strategies.
“The partnership with Unilever is very important. They trusted us with a 200-year-old brand, they are working with us to help us grow and they have helped with part of the investment in this business.”
Mr Martin said the coronavirus lockdown had a significant impact on mustard sales into the hospitality, restaurant and catering trade – although an uplift in retail sales helped steer the company through the difficult summer weeks, when packing line shifts were reduced by around 20pc. But in the last two months, he said there had been a “real spring-back” in the lost trade which “bodes well for the future”.
“We are optimistic about the future on the basis that we have had a pretty significant challenge in year one of trading, and we have come through it exceptionally well,” he said.
The 25-strong team at the mill includes some workers retained from the previous Colman’s site at Carrow Works – although the majority of the 113 jobs there were lost from the city when the old factory closed and wet mustard production shifted to Burton-on-Trent.
Jon Strachan, vice president of supply chain for Unilever UK and Ireland, said: “Our new long-term partnership with Condimentum is now fully up and running, with the new facility working well, and we’re delighted that, through this, we’ve been able to maintain the historic link between Colman’s and Norwich, with mustard and mint continuing to be sourced locally as has been done for generations.
“We’re fully committed to continuing to help and support Condimentum and the growers they work with, including during challenging times with the pandemic, and we fully expect to see the relationship going from strength to strength into the future.”