Sunday, 13 July 2014

where have all the malting floors gone?

There are only a handful of malting companies in the British Isles who still use the ancient and traditional technique of floor malting. One of these is Tucker's Maltings, in Newton Abbott, near Exeter, Devon. They are the only Maltings in the UK who offer regular guided tours. Another is the Warminster Malt Company, established in 1855. Guinness owned and operated this Maltings between 1950 and 1994. It provided the malt for the famous brew. When they moved out, the new company provided quality floor malt for several small independent craft breweries.

The Crisp Malting Group is a large company, with malting plants operating in Scotland and England. They own Maltings in Alloa and Portgordon, Scotland, and also in Ditchingham, Great Ryburgh and Mistley in Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex, respectively. The site at Great Ryburgh is the largest and, as they say on their web page, it provides an insight into the technical developments and innovations that have taken place in the malting industry over the last 150 years. The Ryburgh Maltings was set up in the 1850s. It eventually became the largest floor malting plant in Europe. They still have and use some of the traditional floor malting facilities. Today, however, because of demand, most of the malt is produced using modern equipment. These are the Saladin Maltings, installed in the early 1960s. Circular germinating vats, also known as drum maltings, were added in 1973. In the early 1990s, modern computerised systems were introduced.

These modern systems can deal with large amounts of grain but the fundamental processes of steeping, malting and kilning remain unchanged. If you want to see just how huge the modern computerised GKV systems can be, here is a time lapse video of one being built between August 2011 and February 2012 for the Great Western Malting Company. It will replace the drum maltings. In the 21st century, making the equipment for malting has become a big industry in itself. 

A working floor at Fawcetts Maltings
malt being turned by hand on the malting floor at Fawcett's, Castleford, Yorkshire
There is also Thomas Fawcett & Sons Ltd, based in Castleford, West Yorkshire, where the original malting floors are still in use, alongside the Saladin Maltings and a state of the art germinating kilning vessel. The family has been making malt since the 1760s. Established in 1809, the family business and company has seven generations of experience of making malt.

We contacted them not long after visiting the Corrigall Farm Museum on Orkney where we had seen the traditional 18th century grain barn, complete with threshing and malting floor. Fawcett's were kind enough to take us on a guided tour round the Maltings and explain what they did. That was in 1997, just before I completed my thesis. It gave us an insight into the complexities of malting on an industrial scale. A more recent description of a tour around Fawcett's is here. It seems that not a lot has changed there over the last 17 years.

So, where have all the malting floors gone?
Replaced by modern technology, almost every one ...

It's crucial to turn the malt regularly. This aerates it and prevents the rootlets from becoming entangled and matted on the malting floor. This important job has traditionally been done by people, who pulled a specially designed malt rake through the germinating grain. It is a time consuming process. As the malting floors became larger and larger to cope with the demand for beer and whiskey in the Victorian era, so the task of turning the malt became increasingly labour intensive and expensive.

In the 1890s, a new mechanised system was invented by Charles Saladin, a French engineer (1878-1942). Named after him, the Saladin box was a large concrete or metal box in which revolving metal forks moved slowly from end to end, turning and aerating the grain as it germinated. The picture below is from a Belgian malting company's web pages, Dingemans, who began to use the new mechanical system in the early 20th century. The malt needs to be aerated and, as time went by, the basic design has been improved with perforated floors, and air being blown through the germinating grain to maintain an even temperature. Drum maltings are essentially the same system, but with circular grain beds, not rectangular boxes.

a classic Saladin box malting (image from Dingemans Mouterij, Belgium)

In the British Isles, the malting floors began to be replaced by Saladin box maltings slightly later than in Europe, with the first being installed in Edinburgh's North British Grain Distillery in 1948. They became increasingly popular during the 1950s and 1960s. Saladin boxes and pneumatic maltings, where the germinating grain is aerated, have been improved upon by larger capacity drum maltings and more recently by enormous computer controlled state of the art Germinating Kilning Vessels.

Malting equipment in the modern food processing industry has become huge and complex, yet it is still based upon the fundamental processes of steeping, germination and kilning. There is a very good analysis of modern malting techniques and equipment here, Chapter 3 of ' Engineering Aspects of Cereal and Cereal Based Products' edited by Raquel de Pinho Ferreira Guine, Paula Maria dos Reis Correia.

malthouses
Apart from the Nottingham cave maltings, dated to the 13th and 14th centuries, there are very few recorded malthouses or facilities for making the malt in the medieval era. Mostly, malt was made in the grain barn. The cave maltings are unique. Because of the ambient temperature being the same all year round, they could make malt all the time. In a traditional grain barn or malthouse, it was only made in the cooler months of the year, those months with an 'r' in, that is, any month except May, June, July and August when it was too hot to make malt. Over the centuries, as the breweries gradually became larger and more centralised in towns, so the malthouses and malting floors had to become much larger to supply them.

Great Dunmow Maltings
Great Dunmow Maltings, now a museum
The details of the commercialisation, industrialisation and mechanisation of the malting process in England is very well told by Amber Patrick in her report for English Heritage. She explains that the basic 16th century malthouse had two floors, the top being for grain storage and the ground floor was the growing floor. The kiln for drying the malt would be at one end. A good example is the Boyes Croft, Great Dunmow, Essex, a Grade II listed building.

By the end of the 17th century, commercial malting was on such a scale that it warranted taxation. The Malt Tax was introduced in 1697 and was not repealed until 1880. The malting industry became highly regulated and the buildings became larger, sometimes with two malting floors, one above the other. Amber Patrick explains that the trend for the last three or four hundred years has been for the malthouses to become bigger and bigger.

The Industrial Revolution and the construction of the canals, then the railways, greatly accelerated this trend. It became easier to transport large quantities of malt to the breweries quickly and efficiently. More multi storey Maltings were constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries, usually right by the canal or the railway.

Bass Maltings, Sleaford, with its' own railway line. Currently up for development for housing

an aerial view of the Bass Maltings - the largest floor maltings in Britain.

The Bass Maltings were built between 1903 and 1906. There was an engine house, to provide the power for shifting around the huge amounts of malt that was made there. It was originally planned to build eight more malting buildings, mirroring the eight that did get constructed. It was a state of the art, hugely mechanised turn of the century floor Maltings, one of the last to be built in Britain. It closed down in the 1960s, with the introduction of box and pneumatic maltings, which could produce more malt at a cheaper cost.

While browsing about on the internet, I found some fascinating images of the inside of the Maltings, on a blog about decaying industrial buildings, www.adarkertrantor.co.uk. They were taken in 2012 and they show how this important industrial site was abandoned with much of the equipment still there.


Malthouses were huge, multi storeyed and functional, yet they could still be attractive buildings. As I was writing this blog, I looked on the internet for a suitable image of a disused Maltings that I could use. The difficulty in finding an image online of an industrial malthouse is that most of them have been closed down or demolished in the last few decades. Many have been converted into flats and housing developments. Some have become offices and others are Listed Buildings. I came across this recent story from the Newark Advertiser, about a Grecian style Maltings that is up for sale and future development. It is a good story, well worth reading, since it tells you who owned it and how it came to be built. The Maltings was built in 1864 and it was last used to make malt in 1966. It could be the story of any industrial maltings.

the Maltings at Newark is up for sale as I write this, details here

Making malt in the the ancient and traditional way is being revived in the USA. That's great news - I know about a few people who are doing this. If you are making malt on a small scale, using traditional techniques and I have missed you out, please let me know.

 Valley Malt, Hadley, Massachusetts

 Riverbend Malthouse, North Carolina

Rebel Malting Company - they use a Saladin system

Colorado Malting Company

further reading

Amber Patrick Maltings in England a report for English Heritage, 2004

Christine Clarke, The British Malting Industry since 1830 published in 1998
Summary: "Malt is the main ingredient in the national beverage, beer. For centuries the malting industry has provided a principal bridge between agriculture and the brewing industry, yet its history has been little studied. The British Malting Industry since 1830 is the first overall account of malting, dealing with the processes, products and sales, owners and employees, and with the evolution of what in 1830 were almost all small, local businesses. Christine Clark traces the influence of the growing demand for beer in Victorian England, and of the increasing power of the large breweries, on the malt industry ..."

Roger PutmanBeers and Breweries of Britain (pages 9-12),published 2004