Producing the Goods

East Anglian Brewers

Barley is an infamous cash-crop, the Common Agricultural Policy's gravy-train. 'Barley barons' have entered our language as the new prairie feudalists, bloated, as we perceive some of them, by the modern tribute of the farm subsidy; alternatively, these are commercial farmers, operating efficiently in the modern market place - hugely competitive, and with subsidies now directed into efforts which may well hamper efficiency. Either way, East Anglia has long been the place for growing barley, and especially north Norfolk with its conducive light well drained soils, mild frets blowing in from the Wash coast in a county which is surprisingly dry - Norfolk enjoys less annual rainfall than Jordan, in fact. These attributes conspire to extend the natural maturing season of the grain. The relatively high ground in that area means germinating grain does not get waterlogged, while natural and constructed waterways thread through the low-lying lands to the south, have helped get the stuff to the maltsers and the market town brewers of the region.

Yet the commodification of barley in a global market and its associated economic and environmental challenges, doesn't stop the fact that barley for malt, and especially for real ale malt, is suited to Norfolk. It's a local crop and has been renowned as such for at least four centuries. This has motivated Teddy Maufe at Branthill Farm, a barley grower on 1,000 acres of the Holkham estate near Wells. Barley is half his farm crop.

In the 1970s when Teddy took over the farm tenancy from his father, his barley was routinely sold to anonymous brewers via a grain merchant. At this point Teddy was already growing Maris Otter Barley, a variety raised in Cambridge, and accepted as the best for ale. By the mid-90s, after 20 years of keg beer and industrial lagers had cut the market for Maris Otter, Teddy was advised to give it up. He planted Halcyon, a higher yielding but lower quality ale variety. The new barley variety did produce more tonnes but not nearly enough to cover the price cut. By now, with a strong pound in Europe and the associated drop in exports (the UK was then exporting 30% of the national yield) and a move towards fewer, bigger farms produced a surplus of barley. The Malting Barley Growers Confederation reflected a huge cut in grain prices from around £140 / tonne to £70 / tonne. Teddy describes this as the 'sowing and hoping' stage of his career. The grower is enthused by merchants' assessment of a sure-fire good price the following season, which, by the time the seed is in the ground and growing, is gradually and inexorably diluted into gloom as the same merchants list the low prices coming from international competitors.

Teddy sowed and hoped for three seasons but in 2000 came the wake-up call that his bank considered his barley-growing, 50% of his farm crop, an expensive hobby. This shock led Teddy to establish the Malting Barley Growers Confederation, with a warning that growers were going out of business in an area which had long been the best suited for barley malt, and that competition was reducing in a race to the bottom.

The message Teddy presented at his first meeting was a tricky one for struggling farmers to swallow: that they should stop growing unless they got a realistic price and that they should grow to order. Some farmers misinterpreted the opportunity and planned to compensate for Teddy's abandonment of Halcyon and move back into Maris Otter by correspondingly increasing their own Halcyon production.

The Norwich-based Woodforde's brewery took Teddy's Maris Otter, and with around 30 other local small-scale brewers had established a co-operative called East Anglian Brewers Ltd in 2002, with support from the East Anglian Development Agency. Encouraged by the pride and lyrical knowledge of Napa Valley wine makers during a visit to California, Teddy opened an off-licence in one of the farm buildings with help from the EABA and a Defra grant, in the course of which he discovered an original Holkham yellow stone floor beneath the 1950s lino his father has laid.

Teddy struck an arrangement with Crisp's Maltings, along the coast near Fakenham, whereby barley from his farm and others in the growers' association would be kept separate and malted in the traditional hand-turned floor-malting manner. As the capacity of the floor malting is about a lorry load, traceability of the malt is easy to protect. In fact, the Fox Brewery at Heacham, prints the grid references of the appropriate fields on its bottle labels, so, with a bit of map work you might, in a particular year, take a bottle of Pioneer to Gallow Hill, or other local spots. Teddy's malt suffices the needs of most of the small brewers in the East Anglian Brewers co-op and about a third goes to Crisp's to this end.

The off-licence opened in June 2004 selling beers from 6 local brewers and quickly sold out. Now Teddy sells for nine brewers, half of which exclusively use malt from Branthill barley. This a modest revival for Maris Otter, which is now back at 5% of the market for winter barley. So ultimately Teddy urges openess to new ideas. Traceability is a start and good marketing is vital - farmers are almost notorious for their poor marketing skills and it seems that microbrewers may be in the same camp - but challenges remain: when Teddy applied for his off-sales permission, the magistrate wondered what the connection was between arable farming and beer that might require a licence.

Teddy Maufe, Branthill Farm +44(0)1328 710246
Brendan Moore, Iceni Brewery +44(0)1842 878922
Mike Betts, Woodforde's Brewery +44(0)1603 720353

East Anglian Brewers Ltd