Obituary: Farm merchant who helped save revered brewing barley dies aged 81

Tony Banham pictured with his son Mark in a field of Maris Otter malting barley

Tony Banham (right) pictured with his son Mark in a field of Maris Otter malting barley - Credit: Frances Brace

A respected Norfolk agricultural merchant who helped to save a revered beer-making barley from extinction has died at the age of 81.

Tony Banham, who lived at Barney, near Fakenham, was a key figure in the revival of Maris Otter, prized by the brewing industry as one of the best malting barleys in the world.

Born on October 11, 1940, to Harold and Ada, at Hempton, he went to Bracondale School in Norwich, not far from the breweries of King Street - which may have some influence on his future career. He was known to keep bottles of beer under the floorboards of the dormitory.

He joined the family business of H Banham Ltd when he left school. At that time, it was only dealing in animal feed.

But after taking over the business in 1963 at the age of just 22, he made the decision to start trading malting barley.

By 1965 the growing business was trading a new winter variety, Maris Otter - which proved to be one of Mr Banham's greatest legacies.

Maris Otter was in high demand from real ale brewers in the 1970s, but by the late 1980s its popularity was dropping as the larger brewers lost interest and looked to newer varieties. 

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However, some smaller brewers still wanted Maris Otter so, in 1992, Mr Banham, alongside Hampshire grain merchant Robin Appel and Gowlett Grain, was able to obtain the growing rights from the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI).

They revived the variety, cleaning up the seed mother stock to remove impurities and improve yield and quality. After a Gold award for Marketing at the 1995 ADAS/Sunday Times Food and Drink awards, demand was increasing from a growing number of craft brewers.

In 2000, they obtained full rights to Maris Otter from PBI.

And in 2015, as Maris Otter celebrated its 50th anniversary, Mr Banham and Mr Appel were given lifetime achievement awards by the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group for their part in the variety's revival.

Tony Banham (right) celebrating his Lifetime Achievement Award from Parliament with his son Mark

Tony Banham (right) celebrating his Lifetime Achievement Award from Parliament with his son Mark - Credit: Frances Brace

The milestone was also marked with the Maris Otter 50 Beer Festival in Norwich, organised by H Banham and The Norfolk Brewhouse, which was supported by brewers from across the UK and the world.

As a young man, Mr Banham was involved with Young Farmers and Round Table and had a passion for hockey - playing and later umpiring for Dereham Hockey Club.

When he got married he moved to Colkirk, a village where he was to spend a large portion of his life. He bought a piece of land near the church where he reared pigs for many years before the growth of the grain business meant the land was turned to other uses, including a grain store and grain cleaning plant for malting barley. 

In the mid-1980s Mr Banham and his first wife, Sue, started Fakenham Garden Centre, which expanded to include small animals and fish before being sold on to the Turner family, who run it today.

In 2007, Mr Banham left his beloved Colkirk, moving with his second wife Sandra to Barney, converting an old barn in the centre of the village. 

In the same year, the ABC Grower Group was set up, with Adams & Howling, H Banham Ltd and Crisp Malt, to create a reliable supply of quality malting barley by bringing together the farmers, merchants and maltsters. The group now supplies a sizeable tonnage of barley every year.

Mr Banham's son Mark, who is now managing director of the H Banham family business, said: "Tony was highly respected throughout the farming community.

"Many farmers have said how much help he gave them, with advice and guidance that would set them in good stead for the future.

"The letters and messages the business and family have received has been overwhelming. It just shows how many people Tony influenced and how many friends he made."

Bob King, commercial director of Crisp Malt at Great Ryburgh, near Fakenham, said it was always a "real pleasure" doing business with Mr Banham - "even when he was driving a hard bargain".

“He supplied the highest quality barley, but the thing he will be most remembered for - and the thing that makes us forever grateful to Tony - is the role he played in saving and revitalising Maris Otter," he said.

“Without his, and Robin Appel’s, vision and tenacity, this exceptional barley variety would have disappeared and many of the best beers in the country today would be lacking their salient flavours.

"Beer drinkers, brewers and everyone at Crisp should be toasting Tony and his wonderful legacy.”

Later in life, Mr Banham enjoyed spending time on the Costa Del Sol in Spain, where he could usually be found playing tennis or golf, or having a beer in the beach bar - although he always kept in touch with the business when he was away.

He died after a short illness, and is survived by his son Mark, his wife Sandra and his first wife Sue. His daughter Sarah died last year.

A private funeral will take place at Mintlyn Crematorium with a Service of Thanksgiving planned at a later date. Donations are invited for British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research. Online donations can be made via tonybanham.muchloved.com or sent c/o Fakenham & District Funeral Services, Weasenham, PE32 2TF (01328 838838).