Why does UK barley make such good malt?

We are regularly asked the following question by our overseas brewing customers: “What’s so special about UK malt?”

One of the main factors is the UK-grown barley that we use and, in this blog, UK Sales Director Jamie Ramshaw explains why UK barley lends itself to producing such high-quality malts.

Climate for Growing Barley in the UK

Weather

The weather plays a hugely important role in the quality of the barley for malting from year-to-year, with the position of the Jet Stream over the UK and also the Gulf Stream determining the type of weather we experience.

The Jet Stream moves in its position from season-to-season, resulting in mild winters, wet springs and long, warm sunny summer days – followed by a dry late summer leading up to harvest.

The Gulf Stream, meanwhile, constantly brings warmer water towards western Europe, with the result that air temperatures over the UK are a few degrees higher than they would be otherwise.

This more temperate climate – as evidenced by the graph below that compares temperatures in Edinburgh in the UK with European cities Copenhagen and Moscow, all of which are on the 55° north latitude – is ideal for the growth of barley and other crops such as wheat.

The less intense heat during the growing season, combined with intermittent rain, allows for steady growth, meaning the farmer can target fertilisers at the correct phases, resulting in consistent and bold grains that are full of starch and low in protein.

Length of the Growing Season

The barley is also helped by our long growing season from drilling of the seed in mid to late March through to harvest in July and August.

The UK’s latitude means longer hours of sunlight when the grain is formed and this leads to a higher starch content and generally higher yields. In fact, the even longer days in Scotland means Scottish barley is especially good for distilling.

Our Spring Barley Trials site in Beal, Northumberland.

Terroir

UK malting barley can be grown on most soil types but it has been proven that using the lighter soils found along the south, east and north east coasts lend themselves to consistently hitting the low nitrogen content traditionally required in finished malt by UK brewers.

These growing conditions – the maritime climate, longer days and lighter soil – combine to produce a low Total Nitrogen (TN) and a fuller and mealier barley.

UK Barley vs Continental Europe Barley

As stated, UK barley tends to have a lower Total Protein (TP) than elsewhere. Less protein means more starch, resulting in a greater extract. It should also be noted that, here in the UK, we only ever use two-row barley for malting.

Typical Continental Barley: Total Protein >11.6% // Total Nitrogen >1.85%
Typical British Malting Barley: Total Protein <10.0% // Total Nitrogen <1.60%

How does the barley impact the malt in brewing?

Over the years, brewers have developed beer styles and brewing processes based on the malt our barley produces.

A four-day germination of UK barley gives a well-modified malt that will readily give up its extract. The cell walls and protein matrix are broken down to the extent that a simple saccharolytic step is all that is necessary. An old rule of thumb for mash tuns being 1hr at 65.5°C gives 80% attenuation.

If using a two-vessel continental system, you do not need a proteolytic stand and you will probably need to mash hotter or for a shorter period to avoid the fermentation over attenuating.

British grown varieties have been regularly used by our customers in beer styles that require a fuller mouthfeel, with great success. Varieties such as Maris Otter and Golden Promise, which are over 50 years old, have increased in popularity despite their diminishing yield purely due to the distinct flavours they bring to beer.

UK barley’s fat, round and well-modified grains also lend themselves to making fantastic coloured malts. At Simpsons Malt, we’re able to produce fully crystallised or high colour roasts with complete homogeneity across the batch in our state-of-the-art roasting drums, delivering cleaner flavours as well as consistent colours.

How is Simpsons Malt different to other UK maltsters?

At Simpsons Malt, we have our own agricultural merchanting division – McCreath Simpson & Prentice (MSP).

We can supply the barley seed and then support our farming customers throughout the entire growing season, as they have access to our expert agronomists whose goal is to ensure we have the highest quality malting barley made available to us.

Once harvested, the barley enters our controlled stores, meaning we have responsibility for ensuring the environmental conditions are maintained to make the barley suitable for malting.

Through having an agricultural merchanting division and being able to offer the services outlined above, this also enables us to trace our malt back to the very farms the barley was grown on.

If you’ve got a question you’d like to ask about this blogget in touch with our team, or speak to us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram.