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Moorhouse’s puts local barley at the heart of its business

Lancashire brewer Moorhouse’s is aiming revive the cultivation of Britain’s favourite ‘brewing barley’ in the North West. The  brewer is encouraging farmers to grow the traditional Maris Otter barley in the region as it seeks to secure crucial sustainable supplies for the future of its new £4.5m brewery. You can see more about this story on the BBC News Lancashire website.

Maris Otter barley variety was developed specifically as malting barley for British cask-conditioned ale in the 1950s and became a mainstay of the industry with the cask ale revival. However, following bad harvests and difficulties with seed, many arable farmers shunned the variety in favour of more easily cultivated, higher yield crops.

But now the Moorhouse’s project has convinced a clutch of arable farmers in the St Helens and Preston areas to revive the variety – including Ian Bennett of the 700 acre Home Farm, Rainhill, and father and son team Tom and Olly Harrison who farm 1000 acres at Water Lane Farm, Prescott. They are now preparing to harvest the first crop, which the fast-growing Burnley brewer will take as part of some 500 tonnes of malted barley a year now required to brew the famous ‘Pendle Witches’ ales.

MD David Grant said: “It’s still a very tough market as pubs close and the number of micro-brewers grows unabated. Some regional brewers have contracted, but we continue to see sales rise as we win new business nationally. We have confidence in our strategy to push forward through quality and provenance– not price discounting.

“Our barley initiative is at the heart of that. We aim to build a ‘terroir’ similar to that for French wines. We want publicans to know they can have cask ales with real provenance from Burnley – ales brewed in Lancashire from the area’s best malt. By ensuring a market we are helping it to survive, for our own sustainable future and for the industry.”

Muntons is a major national supplier of malted barley to the brewing industry. Managing director Guy Newsam said: “Moorhouse’s has taken a leading role in persuading northern farmers to grow more Maris Otter malting barley. This has been achieved through hosting structured visits at the brewery, supported by Isaac Poad the Grain Merchant and ourselves as maltsters, aimed at building a sustainable Maris Otter supply chain with local provenance. This has stimulated interest from the farmers with a number committing to grow Maris Otter for the brewery on potentially a long term basis.”

Comments from farmers involved in the project:

Olly Harrison of Water Lane Farm, Prescott, said: “Our ergonomist talked to Muntons about it and we all thought it was a good idea to try it this year. We have got to make sure it is low in nitrogen and of the right quality and it has got to be treated carefully – like a baby. We will probably grow more next year. It is good to be growing a crop where we know where we are selling and how it is going to be used.”

Ian Bennett, with 50 acres dedicated to Maris Otter at Home Farm Rainhill, said:”We grew Maris Otter 30 years ago, but it is a higher risk crop and there were problems. These days fungicides are much better and we hope to keep growing it as long as it meets the brewers’ specifications and is profitable. We are growing Maris Otter very much because Moorhouse’s brewers want this variety for its quality. It was very interesting to visit the brewery and learn what Maris Otter brought to their brewing.”
Both farm a mix of barley, wheat and oil seed rape

Maris Otter
Maris Otter was bred in the 1950s by crossing the then established malting barley varieties Proctor and Pioneer. It was bred to brew traditional cask conditioned ales and when introduced in 1966 quickly became a dominant variety due to its low nitrogen content and superior malting characteristics. Cross pollination and use of uncertified seed led to the decline of the variety. In more recent years the variety has been revived to satisfy the demand of the real ale market and Maris Otter now commands a premium price over modern varieties. Grown under contract from new seed to exacting standards the supply chain is managed to ensure that auditing is continuous from delivery of seed to the farm, to delivery of malt to the brewery.