Words by Nick Brading
It’s fair to say that no-one has experienced a year like 2020; trying to exist in the presence of a global pandemic brought challenging times for everyone. The enforced slowdown in the economy impacted the entertainment and hospitality industry which as we look back on the year show, as the figures begin to trickle out, a decline of between 60 – 70% in beer volumes consumed which impacts all involved in the supply chain from farm to pint.
COVID-19 has played its part in the malt crop, perhaps more on price and availability for future supply than quality but it is known to take advantage of climate change as some research analysts tell us. The changing in our global weather patterns appear to make transmission rates faster but it is these weather changes that have impacted more significantly on the malt crop quality for 2020.
In the UK, we have arguably some of the best growing conditions for malting barley in the world.
Temperate conditions influenced by the Gulf Stream ensure mild winters and warm summers with a healthy quantity of rain in winter and spring.
The light, sandy and in some cases chalky soils in the flatter lands east of the Pennines in England and the Grampians & Cairngorms in Scotland, give ideal conditions for growing malting barley.
Barley is properly a spring cereal that grows to maturity in around 4 months from sowing. The longer it is in the ground, however, the higher the quality from a brewer’s perspective as a slow steady growth yields an endosperm with low protein and high starch which modifies in germination extremely well.
This means high extract of fermentable sugar, low nitrogen for low haze and stability and good flavour reflecting provenance of the farm and location. British winter sown barley harvests early, followed by wheat then the spring sown barleys.
Continental spring sown barley is also harvested early but without the rain we get in the west so consequently they have higher proteins. A faster growth from seed to ear usually means higher protein levels lodge in the endosperm, extracts are lower, and the malt requires a more gentle and complex treatment in the brewhouse, hence 6 roller mills, mash converters and lauter tuns versus the traditional British 4 roller mill and single infusion mash.
In recent years we have seen more extreme weather patterns due to climate change. In autumn 2019 when the farmers will drill their “winters”, much of the land was too wet. It meant there was a shortage of winter barley drilled.
Consequently, in England more “springs” were sown with the attendant risk of now getting higher nitrogens (proteins). The spring of 2020 duly arrived, and farmers waited until the last possible moment to sow to allow the land to properly dry out from the winter soaks and warm up so the seed would get away to a good start. The classic time to sow is March as the spring equinox passes.
This occurred but there soon followed an unusual dry spell with nearly two months of very little rain. Farmers applied fertilizer so when it would rain, the crop would establish well and grow giving them their required yields.
When the rains did come, the seed certainly grew but in the rapid growth brought about by the unusual warmth, the nitrogen in the fertilizer was lodged by the developing ears in the grains with the resultant higher nitrogen specs that we now see in malt specs coming through from the maltsters.
In Scotland and the North East of England with the springs drilled later, the rain arrived in time to wash the fertilizer into the plant and not the grain.
Typically, we now see up to 1.6 or 1.7 in a pale ale malt spec whereas brewers have been used to see 1.4 – 1.5 in more normal years. Most of the spring barley will come from Scotland or the North East of England this year and only these will be able to hold such accurate ale brewing nitrogen specs.
There is a shortage of good quality winter barley varieties such as Maris Otter and Craft. A consequential loss of extract by a few points is also expected on 2020 crop malt with some attendant less well modified aspects like higher beta glucan levels and higher oligosaccharides.
We strongly recommend all brewers to review their kettle finings dose rate and cold side finings dose rates in cask once they know they are on new season’s malt crop.
This simple process will pay handsome dividends in optimizing finings rates, improved haze and flavour stability especially in small pack beers and ensure more efficient and trouble-free downstream filtration.