Beer Boffins: Meet the Maltsters

James Fawcett, Thomas Fawcett and Sons Ltd


James Fawcett is an ebullient man, always “thrilled” to wake up and start his working day as the Chief Executive (and only sales representative) of Thomas Fawcett and Sons Ltd, a malting business that was established in 1809 by his four times great-grandfather. He jokes that they have won so many malting barley awards, the certificates in the office negate the need for wallpaper! The company supplies over 30 different types of malt to brewers big and small, from Heineken and Carlsberg to Timothy Taylor’s to Coniston Brewing, Cumbria and Kelham Island Brewery in Sheffield. Since 1997, there have been 12 supreme champion beers made with their malts at the Great British Beer Festival.

James’s route into malting wasn’t what you’d call ordinary for someone with such a family business, but James’s father wanted him to set out in the world and make his own way before working in the business. And so, after school he set out to Chapel Hill, North Carolina to study history and political science, afterwards returning to London for a five-year spell in corporate finance. It wasn’t until 1993, when James was 29 and his father was 63 that James began his training as a maltster, under his father’s eye before he retired from executive duties. First, he was sent out on a 3-4 month brewing pupillage where he did all the jobs brewing requires. “It was a fairly rudimentary baptism of fire!” James chuckles. “And I was far away from the gilded streets of London. I had to take a 40% pay cut, but my father very sweetly gave me a Peugeot 405 in which to run around the country. I’m not a vocational person as it were, I didn’t want to be a priest or a dentist or a vet. I thoroughly enjoyed getting my teeth into the malting business and the brewing industry.”

Thomas Fawcett and Sons runs six different production facilities on its original site. On one side of the road are the four floor maltings, where things are done the old-fashioned way (one of three remaining floor maltings in the UK, says James). Steeped barley is spread out across a huge floor, and left to germinate for 6-7 days, with hand raking twice a day (“The chap who does it is very strong,” notes James). The grain grows an acrospire (or rootlet) and when that’s about the same size as the grain, all the insoluble starch in the barley corn has been converted into soluble starch. Just as the barley reaches this stage James likes to walk the floor for an inspection, taking a grain of germinated barley, nipping the end off and squeezing out the kernel. This he rubs between thumb and forefinger to create a white line called “the maltster’s chalk”. This is what will react with the yeast to create alcohol and provide colour and flavour in the beer.

The other side of the road houses two other production methods, the Saladin plant (1950s) and the GKV plants (late 1990s), much less labour intensive. James seems to prefer the old floors, which have been there for 200 years. “We’re an ancient and modern place. We’re still using ancient tools like rakes, shovels and boby pans. It’s very labour intensive, which makes it more expensive, but it’s wonderful that we have support from our customers who require that sort of quality and are prepared to carry on supporting us. The floor maltings allow us tremendous flexibility to make small batches of speciality malts.”

What does it feel to be part of such a legacy? “I see myself very much as a caretaker. I want to leave the place in a better state than when I walked in. What I’ve tried to do is grow the business over the last twenty odd years to be big enough to support all of my three children, should they wish to work for the business”. His daughter may be keen, and would join James’s great aunt, Dorothy Fawcett, mother, elder sister and wife in having worked for the family business. 

I see myself very much as a caretaker. I want to leave the place in a better state than when I started my shift

The growth that James has overseen is thanks largely to the craft beer movement. “It’s changed us dramatically and turned us into a global brand,” he remarks. “When I first started in the business, we had 30 customers, they were all basically family breweries or majors, and we made 5-7 products. Now we make over 30 products, roasted and crystal malts and adjuncts like oat, wheat and rye malts and globally we have 2000 customers. I’ve been very lucky to be at the helm when the opportunities have been there for me to chase, the electronic tools to communicate very easily with every corner of the world has made the job huge fun and very interesting. Due to the internet, we’ve been able to develop a strong export business and are now selling malt to New Zealand, Australia, North America, Japan, Thailand, and quite a lot into northern Europe.” All this, James assures, is down to reputation. “I was very lucky to get involved in the North American market 25 years ago nearly. The Americans have had this fantastically exciting craft brewing movement. We don’t cut corners, we do a proper job and our customers keep coming back”.

Day-to-day, James’s work is dictated by the season. Between harvest and Christmas, he’s very busy driving round the country, seeing customers and negotiating contracts. In the quieter months, he’ll make less formal visits, and at harvest he is busy buying barley from farms that send in samples from all over the country. Quality control is important, the barley must be plump, beautiful colour, and of even size (otherwise milling will be inefficient), undamaged from the insects and the weather. Sieving it will show if there are any screenings in the barley, grains that are too small to be of any use to maltster or brewer. This is all done by eye, and then the barley is sent to the lab where the nitrogen content is measured. Any higher than 1.6% and the beer will be cloudy. “Historically, people drink with their eyes. If someone poured you a pint and you couldn’t see through it, you would think there’s something wrong with that. Now it’s different with some quirky craft pints. But still, there’s something very nice about being able to see your fingerprints through a glass of beer” muses James.

With our maritime climate we have the ability, I think, to grow the finest malting barley in the world

“I think we are very, very lucky in this country with our maritime climate and therefore we have the ability, I think, to grow the finest malting barley in the world. And I think as a result of that in the UK we have the opportunity to make the best malt in the world, we’re less exposed to huge fluctuations in climate. It does boil down to the quality of the raw material. Wonderful barley makes wonderful malt.”

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