Traditional malt, new tricks
We’ve made Yorkshire malt the star of the show in this exciting collaboration brew. Robyn Gilmour goes straight to the source to learn more.
Saturday 11 March 2023
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There aren’t many James Fawcetts left in the world. Sitting at his sturdy desk, next to the gas-burning fire that heats the biggest room in a small office, James is old school, charismatic and highly knowledgeable in the way that people only can be when what they do is in their DNA. Being the seventh generation to run the family firm, Thomas Fawcett & Sons Maltings, James knows better than anyone that the business preserves as much as it produces, and acts as a lifeline between traditional and modern, by the way of the excellent quality of specialty British Malts it has been supplying to the brewing industry since 1809.
From outside, Fawcett’s looks like a substantial operation, but James assures us it is small in comparison to most. “The big guys are probably turning out 500 tonnes at a time, where our biggest batch is 50 tonnes. Every year, we’re probably buying up to 15,000 tonnes of top quality barley for our ale malts, which will be largely specialised heritage varieties such as Golden Promise, Maris Otter, Pearl and Halcyon. We cover the whole spectrum though, and have two bespoke roasting houses for crystal and dark or roasted malts. What we’re trying to do is look after the people who want to make really great beer. We work the way we do because A) that’s how I was trained and B) taking things more slowly and gradually is how you get tremendous and consistent flavours from the malt.” And that they have, through online presence and ever-positive word of mouth, Fawcett’s has earned international acclaim, and today sends speciality British malts to breweries of all sizes, all over the world. “We’re fortunate to have a customer base that’s excited by what we do,” says James. Which is good, because what Fawcett’s does is pretty special. The process starts with hand sampling every batch of barley that rolls up to the maltings’ door. From there, Fawcett’s takes more time than most other maltings “on the planet” to produce 30 styles for which it is known. The malts are made using the business’ original coal-fired kilns in the floor maltings, alongside more modern, semi-automatic (a saladin plant) and fully automated (germinating, kilning, vessel, or GKV) technology.
“We’ve stuck to our guns,” he continues. “For all we’ve increased our production capacity over the years to keep up with demand, we’ve stayed small and specialised. The temptation when you’re very busy is always to get bigger, but that’s ego, you don’t need that; the goal is to be consistently good at what you do. The UK is blessed with a climate that consistently produces wonderful malting barley and it is vitally important for us to buy the best from any given crop.” With all the industry, investment, politics and process that surrounds the production of malt, it’s almost jarring to consider that beer’s primary raw ingredient begins life in a field, and is as subject to change and chance as the most delicate lifeform.
Regular crop walks are carried out to help predict whether the best of the crop will come from Yorkshire, Lincolnshire or East Anglia, for example. James is always watching the weather, taking note of temperature and rainfall during the growing season, so he knows how thirsty the barley that reaches him will be. In the field, he is on the lookout for weather and pest damage which can affect yields, and after combine harvesting, he watches for split or skinned kernels; anything that indicates nitrogen levels, soil health, growing trajectory, or what will separate good barley from the best barley in any given year.
The maltings itself is a magical place, and that is not lost on anyone who works there; all are aware that they are using scientific understanding to emulate and turbocharge the passing of seasons, and in doing so, wrangle the best out of a live product which, by its nature, will vary between crop and location. The enthusiasm James displays in his office is amplified and complemented by production director, Brian Hickman, as they escort us on a tour of the maltings.
Inside is the most surreal environment, being at once extreme and delicate, like a rainforest and the surface of the moon. Room by room, the temperature changes, moving from cool to so sweltering that we flinch and wince against the heat of the kiln. It is like time travel as we move from ancient to modern production units, examining cereals at all different stages of the malting process.
But more than temperature or humidity, I am stuck by the change of smells as we pass from process to process. Freshly steeped grain smells like summer rain, and as we enter the crystal roasting house, we are welcomed with the smell of warm, sweet cake. The team has just finished a batch that is just cool enough for us to eat, one kernel at a time at first, and then by the handful. It is easy to imagine what wonderful flavour and aroma these malts will add to the beer they end up in, whether that be brewed in the UK, Uruguay, Thailand, North America, Mainland Europe or Australia.
“We want to give our customers an edge to keep their customers coming back for more. Maltsters and brewers are collaborators,” James concludes, ever poetic, infinitely quotable, but also on this occasion, especially accurate.
Following our conversation with James, I touch base with Beer52’s head brewer and winemaker, Carlos de la Barra, to unpack and test this theory. Where maltster aspires to provide the best possible range and depth of flavour that can be acquired from malt, the brewer ultimately decides what picture to paint with the materials they’ve been given.
On this occasion, to celebrate Yorkshire as the home of world-renowned malt, Carlos reversed the roles of brewer and maltster by asking James to choose the malt bill that would best represent the work that Fawcett’s has been doing for over two centuries. Armed with a supply of Golden Promise and low coloured crystal malt, Carlos and the team at yeast lab, Lallemand Brewing, began working on a beer that would combine modernity with tradition, and showcase what can be achieved when both ingredients are singing in perfect harmony.
“At first I thought about using Windsor yeast,” says Carlos. “This is a British ale yeast with quite low attenuation [meaning it consumes a limited range of fermentable sugars] and so produces a beer that’s on the sweeter side and is definitely more traditional. However Robert [Percival, regional sales manager at Lallemand] suggested we use the Verdant IPA yeast in keeping with the trend of combining modern and traditional throughout this box.”
Robert confirms this later. “Yeast strain selection is so important in the creation of any beer,” he says. “Not only will it dictate the amount of alcohol you’re going to produce, but how it’s going to impact on mouthfeel, flavour and aroma. The brief Carlos gave me indicated that we wanted to make a classic British pale ale, not too high in ABV, with a bit of body and not too astringent, all the while capturing the essence of a traditional British style. With this being the goal, the Verdant IPA yeast stood out for me.”
I am somewhat surprised by this, associating Verdant with haze, sweetness, a high alcohol yield and strong floral aromas; quite the opposite of the style Carlos set out to make. “While those qualities are characteristic of the beer Verdant produces as a brewery, the beauty of its yeast is that it’s incredibly versatile,” says Robert. “When we were working with James Heffron, Verdant’s head brewer, to develop this yeast strain, he was keen to stress that this isn’t just an IPA yeast; it’s great on pale ales, it’s great on dark beer, low alcohol beer, traditional or malt-forward beers where you want that body and mouthfeel to come into play.”
While my surprise might set the stage for the Verdant yeast to execute a perfect “hold my beer” flex, Robert says he has selected the yeast for an additional and very interesting reason. “The Verdant IPA yeast gives off a very prominent and unique aroma, which is actually quite characteristic of a lot of older British yeast strains that historically contributed so much of the fruity character we associate with traditional British ale.
“Over time, these type of yeast strains were somewhat forgotten about in favour of more neutral, clean yeasts that didn’t really contribute much in terms of flavour or aroma, so in the case of this beer, we thought it would add something really important, given the style it set out to celebrate.”
Carlos adds: “In this instance, the yeast brings the beer a modern twist with subtle peachy, juicy, apricot and nectarine-like esters while still being versatile enough to let the malt shine. If you care to look at what’s in the glass, you’ll find something that’s very elegant and inspired by its ingredients while having a lot more stories to tell.”
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