As most people are aware there are really only four key ingredients in beer: water, yeast, hops and malt. To people not directly involved in brewing malt is something of an unknown entity, but it is vitally important for the flavour, colour and body of beer as well as its alcohol content. Having met a number of brewers now and asked them about malt, the conversation almost always includes Maris Otter. This grain has gained near legendary status among brewers and as such I asked the people at H Banham about it.

How long have H Banham been involved with grain? 
My grandfather, Harold Banham, was selling animal feeds back in the mid 20th century. My father, Tony Banham, was the first to get into grain trading in the 60's. His first venture into the market was with Pallas barley which he bought for £19 a tonne and sold for £20 a tonne, including haulage.

What was the reason behind purchasing the seed for Maris Otter in 1992 along with Robin Appel,  considering it was becoming less commercially viable with increasing competition from other strains of grain? 
A number of brewers including W&D, Woodfordes, St Austell, Hook Norton and Black Sheep remained loyal to Maris Otter, so demand for the malt was there. We were approached by maltsters who were looking to have Maris Otter grown. The premiums were pretty good and we could see the future potential in taking the variety on. We joined forces with another merchant, Robin Appel, who was based in the south, to manage Maris Otter nationwide.

Can you describe the amount of effort and time that has gone into rejuvenating the seed to make it one of the most desirable grains for brewing?
Over time the variety started to lose it purity, so something had be done to get the variety back to its original self. Small plots (about 250sq M) of mother seed are painstakingly inspected by the National Institute for Agricultural Botany (NIAB) and it took two years of monitoring the growing crop and final seed and removing impurities. We continue doing this every year on small plots and Tim Walpole, and inspectors from Acorn Seeds go through the crop. These plots are surrounded by commercial crop Maris Otter to reduce the possibility of cross pollenation.  Any imperfection in the plant and the ear of grain is removed. This is the only way to ensure we continue to get quality seed.

Your collaboration with the National Institute for Agricultural Botany (NIAB) sounds very interesting. Can you elaborate on the partnership you have?
NIAB carries out the statutory crop inspection and seed testing for all cereal varieties, making sure varieties are true to type and healthy. Because of this experience, in 2004 NIAB took on the task of cleaning up Maris Otter. There were even NIAB staff who had worked with Maris Otter in the late 1960s, and of course they still had the original botanical description of the variety on file. At the same time NIAB trained staff from seed merchants H Banham Ltd to continue the process in the future as the seed stock increased. The variety was handed back to Banhams in 2006, having passed the variety purity standards, for commercial seed multiplication and farm sale.

What is it about Maris Otter that makes it the ideal grain for brewing?
You can get good extracts in the mash tun, giving a more "efficient" brew. Maris Otter also gives a consistent brew. It's more forgiving when you get slight variances in the mash tun and kettle, where other varieties may give more significant differences.

There seems to be a mini co-operative between the farmer, miller and maltster for Maris Otter which ensures that everyone receives a fair pay for their efforts and enables a slight premium to be charged for this excellent product. How did this come about?
The ABC group is Adams & Howling, Banhams & Crisps, but also had some farmers in the group. It was setup for negotiating and discussing malting barley prices between all three steps of the chain. We needed to make sure famers were getting a fair price to grow this low yielding barley, but also to make sure there was a margin it for all of us. 

Do you believe that your efforts are now bearing fruit and what do the next 50 years hold for Maris Otter and H Banham?
For us it's been very good over the last few years, and is at its highest level in recent years. A bumper harvest in 2014 and a good harvest this year meant there is some over supply. Maltings still have barley in stock so we have had to reduce our farmers contact acreages, which we don't like to do, but it should hopefully balance out next year.  

The Maris Otter 50 beer festival was a resounding success, what inspired you to organise this event?
We set out to increase awareness of Maris Otter, and to promote Maris Otter and malt in general as a key ingredient of beer, something the public lack knowledge of. It's not all about hops.
We had 50 new beers from all over the  and abroad. We brought beer in from Japan (Baird Brewing), the USA (Arcadia) and Spain (Cerveza Dougalls). As well as this we have a brewer from New Zealand (Stu from Yeastie Boys) who came over and brewed a beer at Castle Rock Brewery. There was a wide range of beers, of all styles and strengths, with something to suit everyone's palate. We had 30 of the 50 Brewers make an appearance, included Arcadia, Cerveza Dougalls and Yeastie Boys. The feedback was tremendous, all who came loved what we did. We had a drinkers vote and the results were:

Champion Beer - Woodforde's Norfolk Ale's - Redcracker
Silver Award - Nene Valley Brewery - Mid-Week Bender
Bronze Award -  Baird Brewing Company ( from Japan)- Maris Otter 50 ESBaird

Are there any people you would like to pick out for a special mention and why?
My father Tony, and Robin Appel for having the vision to see what Maris Otter could become. Neville Carter & George Maule from Acorn Seeds have been doing a huge amount of the re-selection work to keep Maris Otter pure. 

f you want to learn more about malt and its uses in beer then why not buy the Malt book from Brewers Publications. You can use the button below to purchase.