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A truly local Suffolk brew

PUBLISHED: 10:43 23 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:12 20 February 2013

A truly local Suffolk brew

A truly local Suffolk brew

Adnams sources the barley and other grain which goes into its beer-making solely from East Anglian growers. Sarah Chambers reports

Adnams sources the barley and other grain which goes into its beer-making solely from East Anglian growers. Sarah Chambers reports




EVERY year, a ritual has formed in the run-up to the barley harvest where representatives from Southwold brewer Adnams, such as head brewer, Fergus Fitzgerald, will meet up with maltsters, farmers and grain merchants.
They will walk the fields, examine the crop, and weigh up what kind of malt they are likely to end up with once all the factors rain, sunlight, warmth, frost, howling gales and whatever else the weather has to throw at it have been taken into account.
This will influence what kind of beer Fergus is able to produce and his holy grail, above everything else, is consistency.
As a living commodity, barley, even in two neighbouring fields, can vary markedly in its make-up. Too much nitrogen no good. Too little nitrogen equally, no good. Too much moisture in the end crop also poses problems. Some soils will cope better with dry conditions, meaning crops will fare better in some spots compared to others, and yields can be patchy.
This year the party was conducted across the barley fields of the Somerleyton Estate on the north-easternmost extremity of Suffolk. farm manager Chris Lockhart explains that this year an unusual spring weather pattern left him worried about his yields, and, unusually, he has been forced to resort to irrigating the crop.
Nearly all the spring and winter barley crop he grows on the huge, 4,500-acre estate, owned by Lord Somerleyton and now run by his son, Hugh Crossley, will go into distilling and beer malt.
There are only certain areas that can grow malting barley, he explains. The soil types that can suit are sandy loams around parts of East Anglia. Once you get onto the higher lands its too strong (or too rich and fertile). Its over fertile if you like. We are lucky. But its got disadvantages if you are on light sands on a year like this, it will reduce the yields by anything from 20 to 40% because of the lack of water.
Its free-draining you want little and often to top it up. The critical time is when its making the ears of barley that would be May time. We did not have any rain or very little rain between April, May and June. Our yields will definitely be down this year. Quality thats the intangible thing what effect that has on the nitrogen level which is the important factor for malt. Its got to be below a certain figure, but until we get near harvest we are not able to tell.
The brewer will be concerned not only with nitrogen, but also protein, which needs to be neither too high nor too low.
Basically this is going to be a food for the yeast, so its got to provide a balanced diet really, says Fergus.
Although they carried out some early irrigation on the crop water restarictions can be a problem.
Expalined Chris: We have got Fritton Lake, which is one of the biggest lakes round here. We own it but the water company has the right to take the water, he says.
Farmers have to secure licences in order to irrigate, against a backdrop of water being seen as an increasingly precious commodity in the predominantly dry East Anglian region.
This year, a long, dry season has meant they have resorted to this more than in other years, but at least the barley crop destined for Adnams brewery can claim low food miles. This is the first time we have irrigated barley in the last 10 years because water is very expensive but when you see a crop dying you have got a choice to make, says Chris.
Trevor Wright, of Simpsons Malt in Berwick-upon-Tweed, is also in on the barley walk. He is joined by the companys director, Peter Simpson, the fifth generation of his family to be involved in the family business, who works alongside his father, Simon, who is chairman. Although the firms headquarters is in Scotland, it has maltings in Tivetshall St Margaret, between Diss and Norwich, and supplies Adnams with malt.
Also on hand is the head of Adams & Howling is Cyril Adams - he has come to take a look at the crop. His family grain business prides itself on the quality of the barley grown in Norfolk and Suffolk.
Adnams buys its malt from a variety of places, including Simpsons Malt.
We get together with the farmers we work with, explains brewery spokeswoman Emma Hibbert. It has been going for a few years and its really a chance to meet the farmers to understand more about the farming processes and to understand the quality and yields we are likely to expect.
Once the crop is harvested Adnams uses Maris Otter and Tipple barley it will head to the maltings at Tivetshall to be turned into malt over about seven days.
The maltings process mimics what happens in nature when the grain is sown in spring, causing it to germinate. It is this change which forms the foundation of the maltsters art.
We act as God we can control the moisture, we can control the temperature, says Peter.
The process, which involves growing it for days under controlled conditions makes available certain enzymes. Once it reaches a certain stage, it is dried out to around 4/5% moisture to give it colour and flavour.
Barley is taken in by the maltings at harvest time then processed in batches over a period of time. It will then travel around 30 miles to get to Southwold where it will be turned into beer.
We can pinpoint the field its been grown in, says Emma.
Peter believes that farmers get a sense of satisfaction in knowing that what they grow will go into a local product, rather than growing under contract for an unknown user.
Head brewer Fergus Fitzgerald admits that brewers could buy their malt from anywhere around the world if they wanted to. We are fortunate, he says. We can specify it only comes from East Anglia. It keeps the miles down but it also gives us consistency.
Simpsons will buy in over 350,000 tonnes of barley a year, but will store its Adnams crop on its own in order to guarantee traceability. Its a fantastic thing to do to walk round a field you know will end up in your beer. says Fergus.
Peter describes their barley odyssey as like walking through an orchard in France.
Every year is different. Its the rain, the temperature, it all affects the quality of the grain. That can give the maltster a big headache or give the brewer a big headache as well, he says.

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