INCREASED spring barley for malting is required from Scotland to meet a growing worldwide demand for whisky and craft beers in the UK – that was the positive news from last week’s Scottish Agronomy annual meeting.

With whisky sales up 1.6% in volume and 8.9% in value to a record breaking £4.36bn last year in Scotland, and no surplus stores of malt from previous years, Bob King, commercial director of Crisp Malting Group, told delegates attending the conference, in Perth, that there was even the likelihood that malt would have to be imported this year.

“We have exhausted all the surpluses of 2012, 2013 and 2014, which combined with the reduced acreages in 2015, 2016 and 2017, means that we need a good harvest for quality and quantity to meet demand.”

While this year’s spring barley harvest is estimated to be up 12% at 274,000ha – mainly due to the wet autumn of 2017 compromising winter-sown crops – he said another bad harvest could hit grain quality and quantity, meaning more would have to be imported.

And, with few farmers growing high diastatic power (DP), or high nitrogen barley varieties for grain malt in Scotland, Mr King added that up to 330,000 tonnes would again have to be imported from Sweden.

Crisp Malting, which is the largest independent maltster in Britain for turnover producing 432,000 tonnes of malt, of which 255,000 tonnes is produced in the UK, requires malt for both markets and is keen to lock into long-term contracts.

“If the UK acreage stays down at the 230,000-240,000ha mark, we will be back to importing from the continent. We need to know growers intentions for 2019 and beyond – there are already lot of distilling companies tying themselves into long-term commitments for imported malted barley,” he said.

“Scotland used to supply 110,000 tonnes of HDP for grain distilling up until six or seven years ago and a lot of work is needed if we are to get that back,” he said, though he admitted that high yielding, high nitrogen varieties are not yet available.

He is, though, hopeful that the new varieties LG Diablo and LG Tomahawk will prove their potential for brewing and distilling in a field sense.

Dr Bill Thomas, head of cell and molecular sciences at the James Hutton Institute, in Dundee, also highlighted the need to grow more barley to meet the increasing demand for whisky. However, he pointed out the need to breed better varieties and the possibility of introgressing (a form of hybridisation) spring barley quality into winter varieties, which could help to increase yields and quality.

He encouraged growers to get behind the International Barley Hub, which has already won £1.5m of research funding for progressing such ideas.

“Demand for malting barley for distilling is increasing and not being met by the Scottish crop. We need to produce more per hectare,” he said, pointing out that with winter barley quality still based upon the variety Proctor, an introgression with spring barley quality could produce a variety to improve diastatic power.