“I have never ceased to marvel at both the importance of barley to brewing and the astonishing way in which the grain is subtly transformed to provide the essential sugars for fermentation. At its simplest, wine can be made by crushing grapes and allowing the natural yeasts on the skin to start fermentation. If you crush an ear of barley, on the other hand, nothing happens. It takes the great skill of maltsters to steep raw grain and kiln it in order for beer-making to take place…. Malt and beer can be made in vast, soulless factories. But hand-crafted beer needs malt made with similar dedication. Warminster may be based in Victorian buildings but it looks to a future where integrity in food production will be seen as ever more important”.
Excerpt from Roger Protz’s foreword for The Malt Stars of Warminster by Robin Appel
On an unseasonably warm October day, Moz and I visited Warminster Maltings, one of the UK’s last remaining floor-maltings, to see how they take barley from farmers all over the UK and turn it into malt for many of our favourite craft breweries.
“What we have here is unique and very special. The maltings were built in 1855 so there are few like us in the UK. Most malt in the UK is now made in modern factories. We make small 10-tonne batches, whereas the biggest maltsters in the UK will be producing hundreds of tonnes per batch on the same postage stamp area we have here. The biggest maltsters are making more in a week than we do in 12 months,” explains Chris Garratt, Managing Director at Warminster Maltings and our host for the day.
Over a cup of tea, Chris tells us the history of how Warminster Maltings became one of the last-standing floor maltsters in the country, and how, against all odds, they’ve survived the onslaught of industrial malt production.
In the 18th century, there were 36 malthouses in Warminster. Many of the inns across the West Country would once have displayed a “Warminster Malt” sign to demonstrate the superior quality of their beers.
“We’re surrounded by barley and the best barley in the country is built on chalk... from Yorkshire to Norfolk and we’re right on the edge of it in the West. Chalk holds water very well which this year has been the saviour of the crop despite the draught,” explains Chris.
There was a long period of consolidation throughout the 19th century as most of the malthouses in town slowly got consumed by the two most successful, one of which was the Warminster Maltings site we are currently stood on. It was designed and built by William Morgan, whose family were brewers. His son, William Frank Morgan, took on the Maltings after his Father’s death and it is William Frank’s name that remains etched above the west door.
William Frank Morgan then passed the business on to his younger brother-in-law, Edwin Sloper Beaven. Beaven would go on to become one of the UK’s greatest agricultural pioneers and, more than any other person, is probably the reason Warminster Maltings is still standing today.
Beaven devoted his life to Barley. Concerned by the lack of consistency and quality being supplied by farmers, he began a series of field experiments, firstly in his garden and then on a larger scale in fields nearby. He liaised with scientists and farmers all over the world to create a collection of barley varieties. This study would bring Beaven to international prominence within the field of agriculture.
At roughly the same time (in 1901) the Guinness Research Laboratory had been founded in Ireland. They spotted Beaven’s potential and commissioned him to supply them with malt. Perhaps more importantly for Beaven, they also funded his continued research into developing new barley varieties.
Beaven’s greatest achievement was when he crossed the barley variety ‘Plumage’ (of Swedish origin) with ‘English Archer’ to produce the hybrid ‘Plumage Archer’. This variety was released to farmers for commercial production in 1914, and for the next 40 years became the mainstay of malting barley production throughout the UK.
Beaven was awarded an honorary doctorate by Cambridge University in 1922 and died, at the age of 84, in 1941. His daughter Alice took on the business and for nearly 50 years Warminster Maltings happily supplied malt to a growing Guinness empire. But then, in the early 90s, Guinness decided they wanted to embrace newer, more efficient malting technology and that Warminster Maltings should be closed.
Step forward Chris Garratt, Warminster Maltings newest saviour. He had worked here since the age of 16 (he wore his school uniform to the interview) and had become so wedded to the place, he wasn’t going to see it shut down.
" I worked for Guinness for 19 years before they came to me and asked for my help to close the maltings. We closed the two in Norfolk, but this one in Warminster they didn’t own. We were still paying rent to the Bevan family. I took a view that there was a real thirst for local quality emerging in the mid-90s. Around me, I had a new and exciting breed of breweries so I rang them up to see if they’d be interested in buying our malt. Most of them said they’ll give it a go, so I went to Guinness with a plan to go independent and keep the maltings open. We supplied malt to all the small, regional brewers and we all grew up together. The microbrewery scene was establishing itself and we gave them what they needed. I needed more capacity and a new roof and that’s when Robin Appel and I formed a relationship.”
“We all know hops and we could name a few varieties between us. There’s not much knowledge of barley and almost no knowledge of barley varieties amongst the general public. It’s the fault of the maltsters. We’ve not talked about it historically. That’s changing.”
Chris Garratt, Managing Director at Warminster Maltings
Robin Appel’s name is synonymous with the highly regarded barley variety ‘Maris Otter’, a descendant of the Plumage Archer variety. Appel, a Hampshire-based barley merchant, saw an opportunity to bring together Warminster Maltings, Maris Otter malt and the burgeoning micro-brewery scene in a way that was much better suited to serving the needs of small-scale breweries. Robin bought the company outright in 2001.
“Together we haven’t stood still and we’ve developed these beautiful maltings,” Chris says.
Before we’re rudely interrupted by a deafening kiln firing up in the background (“Honestly, we won’t take off. Just hang on,” Chris laughs) Chris explains in very simple terms how malt for brewing and distilling is made.
“To turn grain into malt you germinate it and you do that in a very controlled and natural environment, adding water and just enough air and temperature to have the germination produce starch-converting enzymes. At the final stage, you stop that germination by putting the malt on a kiln where germination stops, you remove the moisture and then at the final stages of kilning you increase the temperature to produce those lovely malty flavours and colours that we associate with malt.”
“We are artisans at hand-crafting the malt. The malt is allowed to express itself by germinating at its own rate. We rely on opening and closing the windows and thickening or thinning the amount of malt on the germination floor. There is no manipulation of that by blowing air through it as you’d see in a modern maltings.”
As we’re guided through the narrow corridors, small holes, steep ladders and dark, damp rooms of the maltings, it’s a surprisingly joyful experience. The Victorian building is full of charm, along with a burly set of ant-like workers with a clear passion for their work.
“I can’t ask Job Seeker Plus for a floor maltster. These guys are unique in what they do and they take a great pride in it. It’s hard work but they acquire the skill to make malt and it becomes quite special. If you were to come here and work for a day you would only be aware of how physical this job is!”
Before we left, I asked Chris whether I’d be able to tell the difference between malt produced here, and malt produced in a more modern setting.
“There’s really one good way of telling the quality of malt and that is to make beer or whiskey with it. Then taste the produce of your labours. There are many brewers that will discern the difference in their beer as a result of using traditional malt and how it’s performed in the brewhouse.”
As soon as I got back to BeerBods HQ I called one of Chris’s customers, a brewery that supplies us with beer, to ask if that’s really the case. “Oh, you can tell the difference” he said. “I’m not sure I could give you any scientific-based evidence to prove it, but I’m certain it’s better stuff”.
Many thanks to Chris Garratt for being such a wonderful host and to Robin Appel, whose book Malt-Stars of Warminster proved such a valuable source of research material.