Whisky boom guides spring variety choice

The rapid rise in demand for malting barley by the Scottish whisky distilling industry is having an effect on the choice of spring barley varieties across Britain.

Spring barley variety Propino is set to be the most popular this season although dual-purpose malting varieties look likely to gain in the coming years.

The variety is a favourite with the maltsters supplying brewers and could take nearly a quarter of the spring barley area, but varieties that can be used for brewing and whisky distilling are gaining popularity.

More on spring barley

Barry Barker, national arable seeds product manager at distributor Agrii, says the variety is a clear favourite with the maltsters supplying the brewing industry.

“This spring, Propino will be the biggest variety, but dual-purpose varieties will become more important in the next couple of years,” he tells Farmers Weekly.

Mr Barker expects the variety may take nearly 25% of the spring barley certified seed area drilled this season in the UK, up from just under a fifth of the market in 2013, helped by brewing demand and export.

In England, its share is likely to rise to about 30% from 25% as it takes market share from older malting types used in the brewing industry, such as Tipple and Quench.

The dual-purpose variety Concerto, which can be used by the brewing and distilling industry, is seen edging just a little higher from its 2013 UK market share of 20% to make the number-two spot.

A newer dual-purpose variety, Odyssey, may well take third place with a market share of 5-10% from just 2.5% in 2013, while Tipple is on its way down to a likely 5-10% share from 2013’s 14%.

Popular feed varieties Waggon and Westminster are expected to decline slightly from their 2013 market share levels of 10% and 6%, Mr Barker adds.

HGCA Recommended List 2014 of selected spring barley varieties







Fungicide treated yield (%)







IBD approval for brewing







IBD approval for distilling







Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD) recommendations key:
F = Full IBD approval
N = Not approved by IBD
O = No longer approved by IBD
P = Provisional approval by IBD

As malting spring varieties generally match the yields of feed barley, popular specialist feed varieties are seen in decline and are now largely grown in livestock areas where the straw is important.

Dual-purpose varieties, such as Concerto and Odyssey, do not produce glycosidic nitrile (GN) compounds in the malting process, which can be toxic when used for distilling, and are known as non-GN varieties.

Concerto is the only non-GN spring malting variety fully recommended for use in brewing and distilling in the HGCA Recommended List, so can be used by both industries.

It has about a 60% share of the Scottish spring barley market, as the crop north of the border is largely grown for the fast-expanding whisky distilling industry.

But with no increase likely in the capacity of the malting industry in Scotland, there is increasing demand for barley grown and malted in England and exported to the Scottish distillers.

David Waite, northern seeds manager at distributor Frontier, says a number of maltsters in central and northern England are looking at non-GN varieties, which give the option for both uses.

“The market is driven by the end user, and as much as 300,000t/ year could be moving to Scotland from England,” he says.

Mr Waite adds that Concerto offers flexibility as, if the grain comes in below 1.65% nitrogen, it can be sent for distilling, while if it is over 1.65% it can go for brewing.

He believes the battle for market share between Syngenta’s Propino and Limagrain’s Concerto this spring will be more neck and neck for who comes out top.

The annual domestic demand for malting barley is about 1.9m tonnes, with slightly more heading for brewing than distilling, but as demand from beermaking is at best static, the Scottish whisky industry is booming.

As the distillers are generally paying a higher price than the brewers, this is likely to reinforce the move to dual-purpose varieties.

The only other two potential dual-purpose varieties in addition to Concerto on the Recommended List are 2012 entries Odyssey and Overture from the same Limagrain breeder.

The first, Odyssey, has provisional approval for brewing and full approval for distilling, while Overture has provisional recommendations for both uses.

Some big English-based maltsters are only contracting non-GN varieties and, as Odyssey is the highest yielding of its type on the Recommended List, many see it as a logical long-term replacement for Concerto.

David Leaper, arable technical manager for co-operative Openfield, agrees the strong pull from the distillers will influence spring barley variety choice going forward.

“As the market swings towards distilling, the dual-purpose varieties will become more popular,” he says.

Propino is popular as it outyields Concerto by 5% on the Recommended List, and is seen by many growers as a “safe” option, but Odyssey could be a strong new challenger.

Odyssey outyields Propino by 1% and is approved for distilling and full approval is expected for brewing before this year’s harvest.

“The future looks to be with Odyssey as it appears to have the yield and the quality, and should go well for the future”, Mr Leaper adds.

Plant breeder Limagrain has the only three approved or potentially approved dual-purpose varieties on the current Recommended List, and the group’s UK marketing director Lee Robinson sees all gaining market share this season.

“Maltsters like Concerto, and we see Odyssey as a complementary variety with strong agronomic characteristics, while Overture has showed high malt extracts,” he says.

Mr Robinson adds that there should be good availability of Concerto and Odyssey for this spring, while there will be more restricted availability of Overture.

One bit of good news is that certified seed prices should be back to more “normal” levels after the big increases of last spring, which saw prices hitting £600/t.

Most in the seed trade see price ranging from £375-420/t for certified seed depending on the size of orders, and there should be reasonable availability of most varieties.

After last year’s sharp rise in the UK spring barley area by 46% to 902,000ha due to poor autumn drilling conditions in 2012, the HGCA’s early-bird survey forecasts this season’s crop down 40% at 534,000ha, although some in the seed trade believe it could be nearer 600,000ha.

A smaller sized crop could mean that malting premiums rise from the narrow £5-10/t over feed barley seen soon after harvest 2013 and towards more traditional levels of about £20/t.

See also: Spring barley premiums set to recover in 2014

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