Production

Working on the malt line

What are the advantages of commercial maltsters, and why do some distilleries still have their own floor maltings? Ian Wisniewski reports
By Ian Wisniewski
Embodying a sense of heritage and craftsmanship, floor maltings enable the entire production cycle to be undertaken at the distillery, rather than ordering in ‘convenience malt.’ But various factors (beyond evocative photo opportunities for brochures) are involved in the decision to retain floor maltings, which includes The Balvenie, Bowmore, Highland Park, Laphroaig and Springbank.With malted barley accounting for around 55-60 per cent of the cost of producing new make spirit, floor maltings are also more labour intensive and less cost-effective than commercial maltsters, requiring more staff and space. Highland Park’s dedicated maltman and four kilnmen, for example, operate on a 24 hour, seven day a week basis, including night shifts, but excluding technology.“Opening or closing doors or windows is our level of automation. Floor maltings are down to the skill and experience of our guys and Mother Nature,” says Russell Anderson, Highland Park’s production manager. He adds that even a strong wind in an adverse direction can complicate kilning.Potential differences in spirit yield are another consideration. “Floor malted barley can give a lower spirit yield compared to commercial maltsters. Thiscan be 5-8 litres per ton less on average, so it can be a significant additional cost factor,” says Ian Millar, distillery manager at The Balvenie and The Glenfiddich.Spirit yields can also be compounded by a poor harvest, the most recent disappointment being 2002 (too wet a year). Whoever malted the barley, this vintage saw instances of yields reduced by up to 10-12 litres per ton, from a general industry peak of up to 420 litres per ton.Reciting facts and figures, typically considered an ‘accountant’s viewpoint,’ is one perspective. But floor maltings can also endow a malt with a certain emotional appeal, which is far harder to quantify.“I’d like to think that what we do gives enormous added-value, and a lot of people appreciate it. On distillery tours seeing the floor maltings is an ooh-aah moment,” says Robin Shields, Laphroaig’s distillery manager. “There’s a definite commitment to it, last July we invested many thousands putting in a new perforated floor above the kiln.”Laphroaig, together with The Balvenie, Bowmore and Highland Park malt a percentage of their requirements on-site.“We’re already working flat out and can’t produce enough malt on site to satisfy the needs of the distillery, as the maltings aren’t big enough,” says Russell Anderson.With Highland Park also peating its own malt, the balance arrives unpeated.“We malt on site so that we have control of our peating regime, using our own peat from Hobbister Moor on Orkney. Highland Park is a lovely delicate balance between heather honey sweetness and peatiness. The peatiness is a key driver for us; it gives Highland Park its unique taste, and is seen as an essential part of the brand’s heritage and tradition.”Springbank is a rarity being entirely self-catering, malting all the barley for each expression at the distillery.“We prefer to have total control of the malting process for all our products, Springbank, Longrow, Hazelburn and of course the new Glengyle Distillery, and because of that we tailor production and future case sales of our products to reflect this policy,” says Frank McHardy,Springbank’s distillery manager.Although commercial maltsters have only played a key role relatively recently, they’ve been around since the 19th century. Similarly, closing malting floors and ordering in has been a long-standing option, with Glengoyne making this decision around 1910.However, most floor maltings closed in the 1960s-70s, a consequence of production levels continually rising after World War II, making it harder for floor maltings to keep up with demand. “The question was, do you spend on additional floor maltings, or invest in stills and ageing warehouses,” says Alan Winchester of Chivas Bros.Various distilleries initially placed orders to supplement their own supplies, which also provided an opportunity to check out what commercial maltsters could offer, before committing totally.Meanwhile, technological advances and a more streamlined infrastructure enabled commercial maltsters to develop more automated, cost-effective packages, based on economy of scale and fewer employees.Continual rationalisation in the industry, resulting in more distilleries being owned by fewer companies, inevitably saw more centralised purchasing. But for every trend there are always counter-trends.“When we took over Chivas Brothers the company was supplied by two maltsters, now we have a number of suppliers. They are each in different regions of Scotland, and generally buy grain locally,” adds Alan Winchester. “Having a number of suppliers minimises any potential risks. And competition is the life of trade.”It certainly is. “With about five sales maltsters essentially sharing the same market, it is a very competitive business, we need to know we’re performing competitively,” says Mark Kinsman of Bairds Malt.Port Ellen Maltings is in an unusual position, having guaranteed customers. Built in 1972 by Scottish Malt Distillers, which then owned Port Ellen, Caol Ila and Lagavulin, it was decided a single modern facility, providing the total malt requirement would be more economical than continuing floor maltings at each distillery.However, the early 1980s downturn in sales saw Port Ellen distillery closing in 1983, while Caol Ila and Lagavulin reduced production levels to below capacity. The reduced amount of malt required made Port Ellen maltings economically unviable and closure beckoned.Fortunately, a rescue package signed in 1987, ‘The Concordat of Islay Distillers’, saw each Islay distillery and the Isle of Jura distillery on the neighbouring island of Jura, pledge to take at least a percentage of its malt from Port Ellen.This on-going agreement (under current owner, Diageo) provides each distillery with an ‘a la carte’ specification of malt, ranging from light to substantial peating levels.Every maltster works to a specification agreed with a distillery, including the PSY, shorthand for Predictable Spirit Yield, which distillers subsequently use to benchmark the actual spirit yield when the malt is distilled. “For some distillers, yield and distillery efficiency are the
most important. Others pay more attention to character and process ability,” adds Mark Kinsman.The question of how much grain a commercial maltster needs to source annually is not only down to the customer base. “We always have to buy in the total amount we can produce. We want to be working flat out for economies of scale,” says Tim McCreath of Simpson’s, which
operates 365 days a year.Longer term contracts help maltsters to match production quotas with demand.“Normally we have contracts on an annual basis, but increasingly longer term contracts of between two and three years are being negotiated, and less are being done on an annual basis,” adds Tim McCreath. “This provides more security for the farmer, the grain merchant, maltster
and distiller.”Undertaking steeping, germination, kilning and peating (as required), the maltster’s traditional choice of germination vessels was drum maltings, which came into broader use from around the 1930s-40s, with saladin boxes used more widely from around the 1940s-50s.Drum maltings (resembling vast tumble driers) are entirely mechanised, with air at selected temperatures blown through the germinating grain, which is turned automatically as the drums rotate.The saladin option means long concrete boxes with a perforated floor, through which warm air is blown. A computer-controlled electronic ‘turner’ moves along the length of the saladin box to turn the grain.How the two options compare depends on who you ask. Anyone committed to drum maltings typically cites greater efficiency, based on processing larger quantities at a time, and offering quicker throughput (though start-up costs are higher).Offering an alternative perspective, Sandy Coutts, manager of Tamdhu maltings, says, “Saladin boxes normally give you better control of the malt than drum maltings. A lot is down to the barley you get, drum maltings usually take around 300-400 tons at a time which can be very mixed in terms of grain size and so on, whereas we have around 45 tons at a time in our saladin boxes, so it’s usually from the same farm and the same grain size.”Automated kilning utilises either indirect heat, now the standard approach and applied on the same principal as a radiator, or direct heat, which is generated by burning a flame.A ‘combined’ approach can also be used to undertake two or more of the separate stages of malting within one vessel. For example GKV’s (Germinating Kilning Vessels), as used by Simpsons, combine the germination and kilning phases, with steeping and peating undertaken separately.Alternatively, combined Steep, Germination & Kiln Vessels are used for example by Bairds Inverness maltings. Conceived in the 1960s, this offers a flexible system that includes the option of peating to various levels, and typically takes malting barley all the way from grain to malthood in eight days.