The Malt Profile - Seed & Grain Expert Frank Curtis on Maris Otter and how it just wouldn't die

Words - Frank Curtis Photos - Matthew Curtis

My first encounter with Maris Otter was in a field in Lincolnshire in 1970. I was still at school and this was my first holiday job - working on a farm. I couldn’t understand why one field of barley was already being harvested when all the others were still bright green. “Oh, it’s a new thing,” the farmer told me. “Winter malting barley, sown in September – all the other fields are spring barley”.

Fast forward to 1979, when, suitably qualified from Sheffield University, I started work as a Barley Breeder. I quickly learned that up to the mid-late 60s, almost all UK barley was spring sown, but geneticists at the UK’s government-owned plant breeding station “The Plant Breeding Institute” (or PBI for short) had changed all that - by crossing a spring malting barley (Proctor) with a higher yielding, winter hardy variety (Pioneer). That simple pedigree was to become world famous for decades – but we had no idea of that at the time.

By the late 70s, winter barley, with its advantages of higher grain yield and earlier harvest, accounted for almost half of the UK barley crop. Most of the first few winter barley varieties were aimed at the animal feed market, as up until then, plant breeders had failed to deliver good malting quality in a winter hardy genetic background. Maris Otter was the first variety to break the mould.

"In the years of the lager boom, production costs were everything and paying growers higher prices to grow economically outclassed varieties was not on the agenda of multinational brewing conglomerates."

In those days, the prefix “Maris” was widely known and highly respected in farming circles. The PBI was located on Maris Lane, Trumpington, on the outskirts of Cambridge – and all of their varieties were named “Maris something”. Talk to any grower at the time and you would soon learn that Maris Huntsman was everybody’s favourite wheat variety, and Maris Piper was the best “first early” potato. Of course, the PBI was sold off to Unilever during the Thatcher years, and the EU told us that using the same prefix in multiple variety names was outlawed as it was “confusing to growers”. Varieties named later lost the prefix – but Maris Otter always remained Maris Otter.

One of my most interesting and rewarding jobs as a fledgling plant breeder was to walk weekly through the thousands and thousands of test plots that could potentially become new commercial cultivars at some time in the future. I was trained to look for key features: straw strength, disease resistance, early maturity, plump grains – basically all the features that would make a variety attractive to farmers. You couldn’t really select plots for yield and quality by eye – the combine harvester, the weighing line and the micro-malting laboratory sorted all that out later.

I was taught to use existing commercial varieties as benchmarks when looking for improvements in field characters. Ironically, I was told that Maris Otter was the variety “at the lowest limit of acceptability” for agronomic features. “That’s a dying variety”, I was informed. “It has weak straw and appalling disease resistance, so it’s a really risky variety for farmers to grow” my tutor explained.

Farmers grew it anyway - because it was the only winter malting barley available at the time. As such, the grain was worth a lot more than feed barley, which compensated for the lower yields. At that time, the feedback that came from commercial growers about Maris Otter was far from positive – at every farmer meeting, field demonstration, or county show that I attended, the comments would be the same: Maris Otter was too difficult and too costly to cultivate. "As breeders we should be able to do better" said the growers – and we did.  We were able to introduce a whole string of new varieties superior for grain yield and field characteristics over the next three or four decades.

In spite of this apparent success, the message that came back to us from further down the value chain was different. “We don’t want your new varieties - we want Maris Otter”. Not only had the variety become the industry benchmark for malting quality, it was acquiring a cult status amongst the brewing fraternity.  It wasn’t the maltsters making the demands – it was the brewers telling their suppliers “We want Maris Otter”.

So why did Maris Otter go into decline? Well - plant breeders got much better at creating varieties with improved quality parameters such as high extract, low wort viscosity, etc. The advances in grain yield became greater and greater as the decades went by. At the same time, industrial scale brewing took over from Real Ale and the economies of scale offered by the new generation of malting barley varieties was too much for “big beer” to ignore. In the years of the lager boom, production costs were everything and paying growers higher prices to grow economically outclassed varieties was not on the agenda of multinational brewing conglomerates.

"But for the clever foresight and ingenuity of a small number of players in the English seed and grain industry, Maris Otter would have died 20 years ago."

In spite of the dominance of more modern varieties, Maris Otter held on to its niche with the smaller, regional brewers but, because of its age, the variety eventually lost its intellectual property protection.  This meant that the seeds industry collectively turned its back on Maris Otter, favouring newer, more profitable varieties that had the benefit of Plant Breeders Rights – the intellectual property system that means farmers have to buy new seed each year – or at least pay for the privilege of producing their own seed of a proprietary variety.

Since the turn of the century Maris Otter has, against all the odds, done much more than hold its niche. In spite of its agronomic deficiencies, the variety has now started to regain market share, fuelled by the enthusiasm of brewers dedicated to producing the finest beers. But for the clever foresight and ingenuity of a small number of players in the English seed and grain industry, Maris Otter would have died 20 years ago. H. Banham Ltd, seed and grain merchants of Fakenham, Norfolk teamed up with Robin Appel Ltd of Bishops Waltham in Hampshire to take ownership of the variety. Supported by Crisp Malting of Great Ryburgh, Norfolk, they were able to rescue and revive this remarkable malting barley. Ten years ago the partners went back to plant breeding basics and reselected a new, more vigorous strain from the original variety. In doing so, they succeeded in raising the profile of, and the demand for, a barley variety that is now 50 years of age.

Having started my career in the barley fields of Lincolnshire, I must confess to having a strong fascination for what it is that makes some varieties of barley just “work” for the industry. Even though I’ve now moved from the flat lands of eastern England to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I often ponder this phenomenon over a cold American IPA.  For example: I read recently that a spring barley variety called Concerto has won the Crisp Malting “best spring barley sample of the year” championship for 5 consecutive years. It has also become the no. 1 variety malted by the Scotch whisky industry. I wonder - could this be “the next Maris Otter”?