Although with strong roots in western Asia, barley is the second most widely grown crop in the UK. This ancient grain, with a history said to be stretching back more than 10,000 years, thrives in our temperate climate and occupies acres of arable farmland particularly in the north and west of Britain.
Traditionally taken for milling to create highly versatile barley flour, or eaten as a whole grain, the cultivation of barley today is primarily used in the brewing industry. Deemed as the best grain to aid the malting process, it has become a key catalyst in the production of both beer and whisky.
Beer has long been a British tradition pre-dating most other alcoholic drinks, brewed continuously since prehistoric times. Our shores are known internationally for our superior fermented cask beers and real ale that have been carefully crafted from a long culture of malthouses and traditional breweries. We seem to know a lot about its vital components such as the hops, yeast and water, but it would appear the main raw ingredient often goes unspoken – malt.
Malt is simply geminated barley – over a 10 day germination period, grains of highly-starched barley are encouraged to develop natural sugars fundamental to the brewing process. Germination is halted by baking the grain, resulting in an end product with a sweet, crunchy sugar – a timely and precise process that is meticulous monitored by the Maltster.
Malting is one of the oldest industries in Britain, but the last century has seen a significant demise in traditional malthouses. Tuckers Maltings at Ashburton was founded in 1831 at the height of the brewing industry, but is now one of the only functioning traditional malthouses left in the UK.
Suffering two world wars and a significant drop in man-power, many local breweries were either forced to close or adopt new malting methods, moving towards a more mechanised, processed approach to malting. Tuckers stayed true to the industry’s conventional methods and persisted with traditional floor maltings, supplying an abundance of quality, independent brewers – such as our friends at Kubla Beer – that insisted on brewing with only naturally germinated, traditional malt, far superior in terms of flavour and productivity than the factory manufactured variety.
After an extensive malting process, the final malt appears to have changed very little, but the intensity of flavour is what makes this traditional malt so distinct. Crisp, crunchy and sweet, Tuckers’ malt offers the unique flavour present in so many outstanding ales produced in the West Country.
Words by Helen Upshall