The Warminster Malt-Stars

On a recent visit to Warminster Maltings as part of my research for an article on Barley, I was particularly struck by the obvious commitment and apparent enjoyment of their job shown by the young men carrying out the extremely physical job of malting.  Given that farming is struggling to attract young people, I pondered on this success.  Some of the key factors that I identified, which I believe can be equally applied across the entire agricultural sector, were:

  • A sense of the history and importance of what they are doing
  • A pride in, and enjoyment of, the final product
  • A family feel to the enterprise
  • Forward thinking as regards the future of the whole industry

A sense of history and the importance of what they are doing

Warminster Maltings, in addition to being a working malt house, is also something of museum of the history of barley breeding and malting.  An 18th century building in origin, it was completely remodelled in 1879 by Edwin Sloper Beaven, a farmers son who left school at the age of 13 with only a leavers certificate.  Under his direction, Warminster Maltings became something of an academy and his outstanding achievements in the field of barley breeding earned him an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University.  Most notably he bred the barley variety Plumage Archer, the first genetically true variety which became the mainstay of UK malting barley for the next 50 years.

Guinness acquired the business in 1941 but in 1994 the malting was scheduled for closure and saved only by a management buyout led by Chris Garratt, the Head Maltser.  He then of course had to establish a completely new portfolio of brewery customers outside of Guinness.  Chris continues as Head Maltster today, but sold the business to Robin Appel, owner of Maris Otter, which is now the most revered malting barley in the world.  Robin was able to inject the capital necessary for a serious programme of reinvestment, enabling the malting to establish itself as a leading supplier to the brewing sector.

A pride in, and enjoyment of, the final product

Set against this historical context, there is now a modern laboratory enabling grains to be scientifically analysed and there is no doubt that quality is paramount.  It helps, I’m sure, that the employees enjoy the end result of all their labour, i.e. the wonderful beers they have helped to produce.  I’m sure too that the respect and recognition which is shown for each person’s role in the process is a big part of this.  You will have read how this starts with hoardings showing the intended destination of the barley as it is grown, and at the malting the maltsters have been restyled as Malt Stars!  At first I apologised for taking photographs, it felt a little inappropriate when men were obviously working so hard, but it soon became apparent that they were happy to be identified and recognised for their important role in the process.

A family feel to the enterprise

Chris Garratt, who led the management buyout from Guinness, is still very much at the forefront of the business on a daily basis.  The input from Robin was however more than just financial.  As we walked through the delightful and unexpected gardens at the centre of the essentially industrial building, Robin explained that they had had a calming influence on the testosterone filled atmosphere that is inevitable in such a physically demanding job.  He found that many of the young men working there were doing so on either empty or junk filled stomachs, and so began the tradition of serving a proper cooked breakfast at work, in the gardens as often as the weather will allow.

Forward thinking as regards the future of the whole industry

As a leading grain merchant, Robin Appel has contacts throughout the industry and keeps abreast of all the developments, both within the industry and also those outside that will impact upon it.  This is not always easy to do when your nose is to the grindstone as most farmers will attest.  Taking some time out to get a clearer oversight does however appear to be an essential element of success. The linking of brewers with local growers (see barley article) is a wonderful example of Robin’s awareness of what is important to consumers.

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