Whether you live, work or play in the countryside, there’s nothing quite like popping to the village pub at the end of a busy day. So I’m raising a glass to British brewing and, in particular, the nation’s barley growers.
Let’s be honest, we wouldn’t have much to drink if it wasn’t for the 1.8 million tonnes of barley grown in this country every year for malting. It’s a cereal crop that originated in the Middle East and has been used in brewing for at least 6,000 years. There’s evidence that the ancient Egyptians were baking and brewing in the same locations. So it’s highly likely that a baker discovered his bread had a different flavour when he used germinated grain. That important difference could well have led to the discovery of beer-making.
On my farm, I’ve been growing malting barley for making lager for many years. Then a couple of years ago we started growing Maris Otter, an old variety perfectly suited to producing real ale. It has to be harvested with great care to ensure the husk of the grain isn’t damaged, otherwise it will soak up moisture and ruin the crucial process of malting. Once the crop has been gathered, dried and stored, it’s sent to a maltster. In my case, it goes to a lovely 18th-century malt house where they still turn the barley by hand. Most people are surprised to discover that the British malting industry is one of the biggest in the world and in Europe is second only to Germany.
The skill of the maltster is to expertly control the three stages of the malting process: steeping, germination and kilning. Steeping is using water to raise the grain’s moisture content. Then it’s allowed to germinate for a few days before the growth is stopped using heat (the kilning). The length of germination and the amount of heat determine the eventual flavour and colour of the beer. The dried, malted barley also has a crushable husk and a high level of starch, both of which are vitally important in the next step of the process when it’s combined with hops, yeast and water at the brewery. In my case, the barley I’ve grown in the Cotswolds is mixed with Mendip spring water and Herefordshire hops to create a real ale that I think is about as English as it gets.
Brewing up a treat
As farmers, we have a tendency to never give our crops a second thought after the lorry disappears out of the farm gate. That’s particularly true of grain. On the whole it’s sold through a merchant, then loaded up and transported away without us considering where it ends up. So my renewed interest in local brewing is a welcome chance to see the food supply chain in action.
Just a few years ago, real ale was considered old fashioned but recently it’s been enjoying a revival. It’s been helped by the fact that micro-breweries are on the up and there are some really innovative small-scale beer producers around. For them and their customers, it’s all about provenance and traceability, in the same way that farmers’ markets appeal to consumers who want to know where their food comes from. For years, we’ve used the phrase ‘from field to fork’ to get the message across. But when it comes to beer I suppose it ought to be ‘from field to flagon’. According to the National Farmers Union, the combined brewing and pub industry contributes £90 billion to the UK economy. So if that’s not a reason to raise your glass, I don’t know what is.