Winter malting barley purchases by leading maltsters have fallen sharply over the past few decades and the advent of a new variety is seen as helping to give a more even spread between winter and spring malting varieties.
Just three winter barley malting varieties – Craft, Flagon and Maris Otter – account for the majority of the maltsters purchases, and so the availability of the early maturing new variety Electrum could help boost the sector and give a more equal winter-spring purchasing pattern.
Adrian Fisher, supply chain manager for major maltster Simpsons Malt, says two of these – Flagon and Maris Otter – are specialist varieties chiefly used for the real ale and craft brewing markets, leaving the market heavily reliant on just Craft.
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It would only take a year’s low output of spring malting barley – for example, if the weather reduced spring plantings – to put UK malting barley supplies under pressure, and a better balance between winter and spring varieties would reduce that risk, he adds.
“In 1995, around 900,000t of winter barley was used for UK malt, but due to improved spring barley yields and quality, through successful plant breeding and farming practice, that winter barley figure has fallen and plateaued at about 250,000-300,000t,” says Mr Fisher.
The breeding of spring barley has accelerated because these varieties are used internationally, whereas it’s only really the UK where winter malting barley is used for quality malt production.
With a regular UK demand for winter malting barley, Mr Fisher says his company will be evaluating Electrum as an additional option as it is one of only two winter malting barley varieties on the current AHDB Recommended List along with Craft.
Even in Scotland, the industry is realising it needs to look at winter malting barleys, he adds.
“We need another winter malting barley, so I’m keen for Electrum to be taken up by growers. It’s on the MBC [Malting Barley Committee] approved list of varieties, so it’s got recognition.
“There aren’t many new winter malting barley varieties in the pipeline over the next two to three years,” he says.
Simpsons operates two maltings sites – a large one in Berwick-upon-Tweed, primarily producing malt for the whisky industry, and a smaller one in south Norfolk producing malt for craft brewers and the food industry.
Together they produce more than 300,000t of malt annually.
Electrum is a newer variety than Craft with a slightly higher fungicide-treated yield, is earlier to mature and has similar good grain quality characteristics. Both varieties, along with Flagon, have been bred by Syngenta.
The UK maltsters are likely to buy about 1.8m tonnes of malting barley from the 2022 harvest crop, according to the Maltsters’ Association of Great Britain (MAGB), with only three – Electrum, Craft and Flagon – winter varieties fully approved for use in brewing.
Maris Otter dates back to 1965 and is grown as a specialist variety in southern and eastern England.
Craft accounted for almost 45% of all winter malting barley purchases from harvest 2021, with Flagon at 14%, according to the MAGB.
It adds that Electrum – fully approved by the MBC for brewing use in spring 2020 – ended its first fully approved year with a modest market share.
This two-row variety has given its best relative performance in the East and on heavier soils, it says.
Yorkshire malting barley
One grower who has put Electrum to the test over multiple seasons is Velcourt farm manager Robert Yardley, responsible for 1,100ha of cropping at Hartleys Farming, Thorganby, south of York, who grows 120-140ha of winter malting barley annually on largely silty loam soils.
He introduced the crop into the rotation when he arrived at the farm four years ago, partly because its early harvest allows time to apply manures, biosolids or digestate to build soil fertility ahead of drilling oilseed rape during the first half of August to get it well established ahead of any potential cabbage stem flea beetle attacks.
“The main focus is on getting a good oilseed rape crop established and rotating this programme of winter barley, organic matter and oilseed rape around the farm,” he says.
Originally, he grew Electrum on the farm’s entire winter barley area, when it achieved a yield of 9t/ha, but in order to manage risk, Mr Yardley has eased back over the past two seasons by growing a 50/50 Electrum and Craft split, and Electrum being an early ripener is first to cut.
This year his best Electrum yielded 10.1 t/ha, with an average yield for the two varieties of 8.8t/ha.
By comparison, he puts the farm’s long-term average winter wheat yield at about 10t/ha. He says both barley varieties have generally given similar yields, although Electrum did better this harvest.
“Craft is a good malting barley, but Electrum has shone through this year. It’s been brilliant. Specific weight was a minimum of 70kg/hl,” he says.
Easy to manage
He likes Electrum because it’s easy to manage in spring, with low disease levels, and this year it only received a T0 fungicide and a robust T1 spray.
It gets a full plant growth regulator programme and stands well. Winter malting barley receives 120-140kg/ha of nitrogen in total, including bagged fertiliser and manure.
The breeder Syngenta is also keen to see Electrum establish itself alongside Craft and Flagon, says Kathryn Hamlen, the group’s malting barley marketing manager, to give growers and end users greater flexibility and choice.
“Harvest 2022 was only Electrum’s second year of full approval for brewing on the MBC list, so it’s early days. But it is growing in popularity among maltsters, and has useful characteristics for growers.
“Sitting slightly higher than Craft for UK treated yield on the AHDB Recommended List, it also offers slightly taller straw and is earlier to mature,” she says.
Winter malting barley varieties on the AHDB Recommended List
Specific weight (kg/hl)
Nitrogen content (%)
Resistance to lodging
Straw height (cm)
In the 1-9 scales, high figures indicate the variety shows the character to a high degree
*Ripening – Electrum is one day earlier to mature than control variety Orwell
**BaYMV – Barley yellow mosaic virus