Barley shortage: What does it mean for distillers?

While the prolonged hot weather across the UK is expected to yield a record grape crop, the same cannot be said for barley. Matthew Russell, co-founder of Kentish craft distillery Copper Rivet, believes the larger producers will be hardest hit.

Last month, the drinks business reported that the English wine industry is on track to produce its largest ever vintage due to extended period of hot, dry weather currently being experienced in the UK.

However, in the UK and northern Europe, the fate of grains such as barley makes for far less pleasant reading.

A German trader speaking to Reuters last month predicted “an EU shortage of about 500,000 tonnes of malting barley”.

Harvests of the winter barley crop have been forecast to drop in Germany by 7.3 million tonnes, down 18.8 percent on 2017, according to the country’s farming association.

Speaking to Reuters, Peter Collier of the UK’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, added: “Springs (spring barley) are not coping terribly well in quite a lot of the country.

“Malting barley is almost at a 50 pound premium to feed barley so it is anticipated that (malting) quality is going to be hard to source,” Collier added.

Speaking to db yesterday Matthew Russell, co-founder of Kentish craft distillery Copper Rivet believes it will be the larger players who require vast volumes of malted grain that will be particularly badly hit.

Copper Rivet, a producer of gin, vodka and ultimately whisky, produces its own neutral alcohol from grain grown by farmers on the Isle of Sheppey.

Based on the harvest of the winter crop, Russell says that the farmers on the east coast of the UK (Kent and East Anglia) are reporting a predicted 10 to 15% reduction in yield.

The spring barley is still yet to be harvested having been delayed by the storms last week.

Russell said: “Having said that, from our perspective it’s great news – the quality is great. The prices are going up and craft distillers who buy on the stop market will see an increase in the cost of grain. They will be less grain available, but the quality will be high.

He added that nitrogen levels, which should be around 1.6 to 1.8%, are not expected to be a problem this year. However, a germination ability of between 92 and 96% is also required by maltsters, something Russell feels may well be an issue.

“They’ll be fewer seeds with less energy in them which means less starch, less sugar and ultimately alcohol, but we won’t know the extent of this for a while,” he said.

“In a nutshell the base cost of grain will go up. Viability of the grain will also be down which will limit the amount of alcohol they will produce”.

He also believes that while craft distillers will feel the pinch, it will be the larger producers that will be counting the costs.

“We’re very much at the craft end, we work with one farm and effectively just harvest what is in one field.

“The big guys, those with the massive plants in Scotland will definitely be affected. We’ll be able to secure what we need but the large players, those that require thousands of tonnes of grain, will be feeling the effects – they’ll be looking at as much as a 20% shortage and the prices will go up.

“At the craft end of the business, there will be an impact, but it will be less noticeable”.

Responding to concerns, a spokesperson from the Scotch Whisky Association said: “Approximately 90% of the barley used in Scotch Whisky production is sourced from Scottish farms. The recent drought has been challenging for many farmers, but it is too early to draw any conclusions from the Spring barley harvest”.

In its UK harvest update of the winter crop, Crisp Malt confirmed Russell’s reports that “malting barley grain nitrogens are in general low” with most samples recording 1.65% or less.

In continental Europe, however, the quality of the spring barley crop is being called into question, in addition to the yield reduction. For spring crops, there are yield reduction estimates as high as 50% for areas of northern Europe. Nitrogen levels are also expected to be high in drought-stricken areas.

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