The weather patterns of the past 12-18 months, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, made the 2020 harvest one of the strangest and trickiest harvests that staff at our agricultural merchanting division McCreath Simpson & Prentice can recall throughout their careers.
In this blog, we hope to deliver a comprehensive round-up of the 2020 harvest and explain how the decisions that we have made have impacted our malt pricing for 2021.
The 2020 Barley Harvest
Firstly, let’s rewind back to the winter barley drilling period of autumn 2019. The wet weather meant there was a reduced acreage of winter barley and wheat drilled as farmers couldn’t get their machinery into the fields for sowing.
This resulted in many empty fields throughout the winter. As a result, an increased acreage of spring barley was drilled between February and April 2020.
What followed the wet autumn was an incredibly dry spring from March through until mid-May. For much of the winter barley crop in the UK, this meant that the barley matured quickly due to stress then came into ear.
By the time the rain did arrive, the nitrogen (fertiliser) was lying on the soil and was ‘taken up’ into the head as opposed to into the plant. This increased the Total Nitrogen (TN) level in the crop.
As a result, the high barley TN meant that much of the winter barley didn’t meet our specification required for malting.
There was also a marked difference in the quality of the spring barley grown in Scotland and the north of England to that of the south of England.
The later sowing of the spring barley in northerly areas meant it wasn’t as affected by the spring drought as in southern regions. It meant that in the south, the spring barley was impacted in much the same way as the winter barley, with very little crop in specification for TN.
In Scotland and the north of England, meanwhile, there were a few minor issues with pre-germination and skinning in some regions. This was due to the rain that fell towards the end of August and into September.
However, the TN for the vast majority were quite comfortably within the contract specification.
What does this mean for malt in 2021?
Malts made from Winter Barley
In terms of Maris Otter, which is a winter barley variety, we sourced around 50% of what we wanted. This is because we only bought barley that hit our exacting specifications for TN and viability. We don’t want to dilute the quality of our malt by taking in what we consider to be sub-standard barley because quality is important to us and our customers.
However, it’s key to say that we had contracted over and above what was needed after a few poor yielding years. This means we believe we have enough good quality Maris Otter barley to fulfil the requirements of UK malt sales in 2021.
We use winter barley varieties for our speciality malts. Although there was a lot less planted in autumn 2019 due to the poor weather, we always sit long and contract long. This means we have plenty in the sheds from 2019 harvest to meet requirements for 2021 and possibly beyond.
We are also very happy with the quality of the 2019 crop and its ability to make excellent crystal malt.
Malts made from Spring Barley
As far as Golden Promise is concerned, this spring barley variety is grown in northern England and Scotland. These regions enjoyed a good harvest. As a result, there should be few issues with Golden Promise this year, although – as of March 2021 – we are seeing lower extracts than in previous years.
In fact, Senior Grain Trader at McCreath Simpson & Prentice Mike Dagg reported that the further north you went, the better the barley quality was. Some crops analysed from the Black Isle – north of Inverness – were some of the best quality spring barley he’d seen in more than 30 years in the industry.
Many maltsters’ brewing operations – including our own at Tivetshall St Margaret in Norfolk – are located in the south of England. This means that the best spring barley has needed to be transported down south for malting via boat or truck. This isn’t ideal but securing the supply of the best UK barley has been our priority.
Looking forward, the good news is that the weather conditions in autumn 2020 were more favourable than that of the previous year. Consequently, farmers were able to sow their planned winter crops for harvest 2021.
More from Simpsons Malt
- An Introduction to UK Barley and how it is grown
- How is Crystal Malt made?
- Why does UK Barley make such good Malt?
- Storing Malt: A complete guide