Growing demand gives barley a secure future
Whisky is the ultimate
destination for more than
half the barley grown in
Scotland. Our seasonal look
at the destiny of arable
crops once they have left
the farm takes Allan Wright
to a leading whisky producer
BEYOND the farm gate for more than half the barley grown in Scotland lie a maltster, a distiller and a discerning world of whisky drinkers.
With a value of £100m ex-farm the nations malting barley crop turns into billions of £s-worth of end product, with the export trade alone worth £2.3bn.
The importance to the Scottish economy cannot be over-emphasised. All other exports of Scottish food, primary and processed, were worth just £400m in the year before BSE clouded the picture. As CAP reform and WTO talks give subsidies an uncertain future and prices look set to fall to world levels, the malting barley grower can take some comfort in knowing he is growing for a real, premium market, say malting barley buyers.
The past years dismal returns should be seen as a blip on a graph which shows a clear line upwards in demand for malting barley from Scottish farms, says Alan Macdonald, cereals purchasing manager for United Distillers.
"From 570,000t in 1991, demand rose to almost 900,000t in 1996. The carryover of malt stocks because of the strength of sterling has hung over the market this past year and demand fell back to 680,000t.
"It is difficult to forecast what will happen to sterling, but demand for whisky is increasing and the long-term future for Scottish malting barley is secure in a cereals sector full of uncertainty," says Mr Macdonald.
So what does a giant like United Distillers want from Scottish barley growers?
"It would be easy to say a consistent sample of a variety which produces maximum spirit yield, and at the right price. That is it in a nutshell and end users have been guilty in the past of not saying much more than that to farmers.
"But we have all come out of our ivory towers. The end result we seek has not changed, but we have realised that this has to be a partnership. We are out there talking to farmers, explaining our needs, discussing new varieties, storage, moisture content, problem areas, contracts and farm assurance.
Mr Macdonald admits his bottom line remains spirit yield and that drives the search for new varieties. "Of course yield, disease resistance, susceptibility to splitting or skinning, earliness, and so on are all important. But if you look at spirit yield over the years you can pick out the screenings disaster for Golden Promise in 1977 which gave way to Triumph in the 1980s followed by Camargue and in the next decade Chariot and Prisma. "In that same time, spirit yield has gone from a low of 370 litres of alcohol per tonne of malt to 415 and I would suggest it will be 450 within the next few years. Progress in the 90s has been dramatic and shows no sign of slowing, with newcomers like Landlord in the pipeline," says Mr Macdonald.
He points out that the life of a new barley is now five or six years. By the time a single malt whisky is consumed – even an eight-year-old – the barley that went into it is unlikely to be around.
Exceptions are Macallan, which remains loyal to Golden Promise and Glen Ord, which takes all the top quality Sprite in the country, mainly from England.
"Those are exceptions and we remain in search of improvement. That is where testing by the Institute of Brewing comes in. The recommended list of varieties covers the agronomics, but it is the IoB tests which give spirit yield figures. those are the figures which make or break a new variety," says Mr Macdonald, who recently became chairman of the IoB publicity committee after the resignation from Pauls Malt of Robin Pirie. "We want spirit yield, but there is increasing emphasis on varieties that are resistant to disease and require fewer chemical inputs. But recommending varieties to farmers is only the beginning. Whatever the variety, the maltster is looking for a consistent bold sample, no thin grains, and good colour.
"He is also on the lookout for splitting or skinning among grains, which exposes them to fungal disease. It is then over to the laboratory technicians with their measurements of nitrogen, moisture, screenings and germination potential," says Mr Macdonald.
For an outsider the great mystery about a maltings is the way grain is dried down to 12% moisture and then, in the first process, re-wetted until the green malt is nearly 60% water, before the final product emerges at 5% moisture.
"It has to be dried down to 12% to store safely until the grain is being used," explains Mr Macdonald. "Adding the water is then necessary to get the grain to germinate and it is the fuel used in the final drying which gives some whiskies their peaty flavour."
From the maltings the process moves to the distillery with its wonderful smells, mystique, legend and at least some retention of old skills. There is talk of how the very shape of a copper still influences the spirit that emerges.
But it is a raw spirit that emerges which is still some way from becoming the "amber nectar".
That comes from years in oak casks that may or may not have held sherry in a previous life. The older the contents of the barrel, the greater the evaporation – the angels share as it is called. For a 21-year-old whisky the angels get a very good share – more than a third.
The next stage varies from distillery to distillery, but it is not uncommon for the wonderful liquid which has been nurtured for 20 years or more to be emptied into a drain and pumped into something almost resembling a milk tanker before being taken away to a blending or bottling plant.
Around the world
Lastly, the whisky moves from the bottling plant to a bonded store and eventually to retailers in almost every country of the world.
Recent financial tremors in the Far East may have lowered that markets sights. But whisky drinkers in countries like Japan and Taiwan remain good buyers at the top end of the market.
Whisky distillers are also wooing younger drinkers, experimenting with lighter malts and spirits that are not intended to be treated like conventional whisky – fiery stuff with chilies in, for example.
"The market has been through tough times in the 80s, but demand is increasing worldwide and we are back to about 420m litres," says Mr Macdonald.
"But the market today demands assurances from barley to bottle and United Distillers will only strike pre-harvest contracts for next season with those who are members of Scottish Quality Cereals or its English equivalent.
"We have given our full support to farm assurance and cash incentives of £1/t in the early years. That has now gone, but we have been impressed with the way SQC has been accepted by thinking farmers. We now have two major grain co-operatives in Highland Grain and East of Scotland Farmers, who make SQC membership a condition of joining the group.
"That is the way things have to be for the future. We want to have 60-75% of our barley on contract. Those contracts pay a good premium and one which is not going to disappear. We have already contracted all the winter barley – Melanie and Regina – we need for 1998 and will be out with contracts for spring crops early in the new year. We will be talking about £20/t over feed, which we think is a useful premium.
"We accept that we have to pay realistic premiums to guarantee our supplies but in return we must have not only a quality product but one which is farm assured so that we can guarantee traceability the full length of the supply chain," says Mr Macdonald. *
Barley quality in the field has a profound effect on the processes within the whisky distillery, affecting spirit yield, taste and ease of production. The final result – a dram ofscotch to cheer the season – owes as much to the effort of barley growers supplying the distiller as to the skill of the craftsmen at the distillery.
Grain quality must be assured, so United Distillers will only strike contracts with SQC-approved growers next year, says purchasing manager, Alan Macdonald.