By Karen Carruth

Photos: Rob Haining

A fresh look at a fifth generation arable and livestock farm has led to a pioneering new craft malting business in Auchtermuchty.

Crafty Maltsters, which operates from Demperston Farm, is owned and run by couple Daniel and Alison, and Daniel’s father Norman.

Alison, a former commercial director at NFU Scotland, and Daniel, took over the management of the farm six years ago.

Earlier this year they produced their first batch of malted barley, which had been sown, grown, harvested, malted and milled on their farm. They think they are the only one of two farm businesses in the UK to be doing this.

It’s a unique and interesting story, and one that Alison is keen to share with other farmers to let them see there is massive potential in Scottish malting barley, and that this product is worth more than being a commodity.

Alison said: “After studying the malting supply chain we spotted a gap in the market for small scale malting providers that can guarantee quality, locally-sourced malt for brewers and distillers.

“Brewers and distillers are desperate for provenance and that is really difficult to get in the malting industry. Our research has shown that brewers would like a product that can be traced back to the farm where it was grown, and now, we can offer that.”

Alison knew that the brewers and distillers were sceptical that they could provide the consistent quality that they need, on the smaller scale that they are producing.

“We knew the equipment we needed had to be right, and because no one else is doing it on the scale that we are, we had to go to Italy to find a family run business which had a long history in grain handling and drying that could manufacture the equipment we needed.”

Equipment on this scale was a significant investment, and the family applied for, and were successful in getting a Food Processing and Marketing grant. At that point, it was a case of: “Yes! Let’s go!”

It was a year before the equipment arrived, and it came with little assembly instructions, thankfully Daniel and his dad, Norman, have very good engineering brains, Alison says for without their expertise it would have been very difficult. This is a seriously large piece of kit they were dealing with.

The barley they already had, as they have been growing it, along with oats and wheat, for generations. As far as learning how to malt the barley, there was only so much they could read, and they had already tried out some table top malting. A malting consultant came to the farm and helped them do the first couple of batches, and to allow them to get to know their machinery. They now know that barley behaves differently depending on the weather outside.

Malting is a process of cleaning, steeping (several times), germinating, and kilning barley, the end result being that the barley is forced into germination which releases the enzymes that brewers and distillers need to produce beer and whisky.

Most of the brewers like the malted barley to be milled, and the Milnes weren’t sure whether to invest in their own milling machine, however, the chance of a Porteus mill, from the Guinness factory in Ireland, wasn’t to be passed up.

It’s been an exciting change of direction for the family, particularly for Daniel, having spent most of his career on the home farm, Alison says that it has been a fantastic learning experience to be exposed to a new industry, and it has been really interesting for the whole family to learn about it together as a team. Especially now, that the malt is starting to go out the door, with a large shipment heading to Sweden at the time we visited, and another one going to Aberdeenshire, they can see their hard work come to fruition.

“At the beginning we thought because of our smaller quantities that we would be selling more speciality malts, however, we have found that customers want a standard pale ale or distilling malt, which is largely driven by the provenance that we can provide.

“From their point of view the ability to add value by saying that this craft malt has been produced using the malt from one farm etc is really sought after.”

Alison says that they have been surprised by the interest from distillers that are keen to work with them.

What is abundantly clear is that Alison has lots of future plans for this business.

“One thing we want to do is concentrate on quality and the ability to innovate, as there is not a lot of innovation in the malting industry. Quite early on we established a relationship with the James Hutton Institute and we have been growing heritage grains of barley.

“These varieties give us a chance to establish a flavour difference. People tend to say that malt doesn’t make a difference. It does make a difference.”

Alison recalls going to Glenturret Distillery and the whisky maker let her smell three new spirits made with different varieties of malted barley and they all nosed very differently. It’s fine saying that it makes a difference, but Alison wants to prove that.

“We can then sell on flavour differentiation and the ability to add value, we are also keen to look at how different varieties compare in terms of inputs. With heritage grains you get a lesser yield, but if quality and flavour can add value that makes up for loss of yield.”

Alison continues: “Our immediate plan is to grow the brand, and put it out there and get people to understand that yes, it is about provenance, and we are able to demonstrate quality, but also where can we take this idea as a business model.

“We are in the process of collaborating with brewers, distillers, farmers and us, as maltsters, to look over a three-year period what the best business model is, what the best product to sell is and do a feasibility study to connect all the branches of the supply chain. It’s early days, as I keep saying there is only myself, Dan and Norman, but we are always trying to look ahead.”

Pale ale is the biggest share of the market, and the Milnes thought that they wouldn’t be able to compete in that market as they are supplying at a price point that is sustainable for them, however, people are willing to pay the price for it. In general, barley is malted in large tonnages, whereas the batch size for Crafty Maltsters is four tonnes.

Through research and development, the family wants to get a portfolio of malt products and to see whether there is space to try something different, maybe by influencing growing conditions, or altering processing in the shed to make something different that adds value.

A visit into the processing shed was quite a revelation. The equipment is huge, this is not a cottage industry by any means. They have invested heavily in their future being in malting, this family is taking this pioneering project forward, clearly demonstrating ownership of their product from seed to sale, which is quite inspirational.