The Scottish malting barley crop is showing increased grain nitrogen levels, prompting maltsters to relax their demands in a move that will help fuel the booming whisky industry.

With more than 95% of the national spring barley crop combined, the maltsters’ move to cut its maximum nitrogen content acceptable to 1.7% from 1.65% has helped ease pressure.

Maltsters look for low nitrogen grain to maximise malt extraction from barley.

A bigger spring barley area and good-to-average yields should produce a 1.6m-tonne-plus Scottish harvest with the majority set to be snapped up by the distillers.

Grain nitrogen levels are reported as “normal” in the Black Isle and Easter Ross, but then become progressively more variable and higher the further south one travels, traders say.

“There is more variability in nitrogen contents than for some years, but the maltsters’ action has eased the pressure on a tight supply situation,” says Ian Keith, barley and oat trader at Frontier.

He estimates nitrogen contents are up 0.1% to 0.15% this season, in a year that is seeing the biggest area of spring barley in Scotland for more than 20 years.

The HGCA estimates the Scottish spring barley crop harvest area rose 5% to 303,000ha, and traders estimate that at an average yield of 5.5t/ha, this would put the crop above 1.6m tonnes.

The prolonged hot spell in June and July followed by rainfall is thought to have caused the higher nitrogen levels, which have also affected some English growers.

Scottish maltsters work close to capacity, buying 900,000t a year of barley – with 85% destined for distilling – so any extra has to be imported as malt from England or continental Europe.

Drinks giant Diageo, the biggest buyer of malting barley in Scotland with purchases of more than 200,000t a year, is confident about the harvest quality to feed its three mainland Scottish malting plants.

“We are seeing higher nitrogen contents but this is still within our quality parameters,” says a spokesman for the Johnnie Walker and Bell’s whisky group.

Despite the big barley crop, there is still a healthy premium with malting samples selling for £150/t spot compared with £125/t for feed.

“Maltsters want the best quality growers each year and look for professional growers to stick with the crop,” says Simon Barry, chief executive of co-operative Highland Grain.

A 54% rise in the British spring barley area to 922,000ha and with a total barley crop up 26% at 1.23m ha is set to produce a 7m-tonne-plus crop, the highest for 16 years – since 7.83m tonnes in 1997.

The HGCA reported its spring barley Recommended List trials are averaging 7.12t/ha, slightly above its 5-year average of 7.05t/ha.

Varieties Odyssey (105%) and Propino (104%) topped the spring malting barley yields, although there were no details on quality.

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