With all the concerns about post-Brexit trade deals and the practicalities and costs of importing, UK brewers have something to fall back on. The main ingredient of beer is – for the most part – grown and malted in Britain.
What’s more, when brewers opt to buy malt made from home-grown barley, they don’t have to compromise on quality. “Far from it,” says Steve LePoidevin of Crisp Malt. “Britain grows some of the best malting barley in the world, much of it produced in Norfolk.”
The region’s harvests are relatively reliable, and even this year when barley yields are down, the quality is very good. The North Norfolk winter barley crops have come in with an average nitrogen content of 1.48%, with Maris Otter at 1.39%. British brewers generally look for barley with low nitrogen content, preferably below 1.6%, so these are strong results.
Below the macro-picture of supply and demand is a growing debate about ‘terroir’. This refers to the geography, topography, soil and climate. It was, in the past, a concept limited to grapes. Its importance in the wine world is still growing, as wine journalist Jancis Robinson says:
“All over the world winemakers are more obsessed than ever with terroir… Geological credentials are now de rigueur on labels and technical specifications, and some producers even name their various offerings with a specific soil type.”
Craft brewers in Britain are increasingly interested in nuances of flavour, colour and body of beer. Taking the lead from American brewers, many are beginning to explore how terroir can impact on barley – and how this plays out in characteristics of malt and subsequently of beer.
North Norfolk features highly in terroir considerations. The region is well known for its sandy and chalky, light soils; gentle slopes; and warm, dry climate with mild sea breezes waving across the crops, infiltrating the very character of the grains. This terroir is ideal for the growing of malting barley, particularly the winter varieties. It’s no coincidence that more than a century ago Crisp’s main maltings were established in this region.
“Being based in the heart of this perfect terroir has allowed us to build close, long-term relationships with growers and agronomists,” says Steve. “We work with around 250 local farmers, and are closely involved with them in research projects, cereal variety development and crop trials. That’s as well as being supplied with their premium barley – provenance and traceability guaranteed.”
“This year’s wet spring, and the summers drought, meant spring barley yields were down 10%, and winter barley yields down around 2% – that’s country wide,” says Steve.
“While farmers can implement certain controls and practices to get the best results possible,” says Steve, “they clearly can’t control the weather. That’s why terroir is so important. And terroir is why North Norfolk malting barley makes such consistently great malt – and why it is so highly prized by craft brewers in Britain and across the world.”
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