The Story of Maris Otter: One of “Sheer Bloody Mindedness”

MarkBrewing, Farming, Malting4 Comments

The Story of Maris Otter:

One of “Sheer Bloody Mindedness”

Written by Mark || 02/08/17

In a world where beer is celebrated for its hoppiness, one barley variety rises above the rest: Maris Otter. As one of its foremost proponents Robin Appel claims, it is “the most revered, the most celebrated, the most famous barley variety in the world.” Let me elaborate on these credentials.

Revered – Google “Maris Otter” and you will find an abundance of articles and lengthy discussions singing its praises. The reverence is nearly universal, with brewers claiming that it’s just maltier than other malts.
Celebrated – It’s not just talk; Maris Otter has gold to back up its claim to the throne. Beers brewed with Maris Otter have won 11 of the last 15 years in the Campaign for Real Ale Champion Beer of Britain.
Famous – Many malt types are well-known, but Maris Otter is the only barley variety to get widespread lip service (perhaps with the exception of Golden Promise). It even has its own shorthand – MO – recognized by most brewers who spend time on the internet.

It’s also one of the oldest barley varieties still commercially produced

So yeah, Maris Otter is pretty special. But it’s just one of tens of thousands of barley varieties that have been bred and grown throughout human history. I highly doubt that MO is the best and most flavorful variety ever to grace this planet. So how did it get to be this special?

Flavor aside, Maris Otter’s success largely comes from having a good story. It’s a story that complements the tale of the craft beer revolution. Both MO and craft beer have struck that fine balance between honoring tradition while constantly reimagining it.

Now let’s hear that story…

Maris Lane, near Cambridge, UK

Maris Lane is the birthplace and namesake of Maris Otter. Throughout most of the 20th century, the UK’s Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) bred well-received crops on Maris Lane and used the prefix Maris to name many of its varieties. If their other barley varieties had risen to prominence, we could instead be talking about Maris Puma, Maris Dingo, and Maris Mink.

The Plant Breeding Institute on Maris Lane

In the 1960s, breeders at the PBI had been working on crossing a spring barley variety with a winter barley. Winter barleys are planted in the fall, surviving the winter, and shooting up first thing in the spring to outcompete weeds. Back then, they were better yielding than spring barleys (which are planted in the spring). But winter barleys didn’t have the right traits for malting, so they were used as lower quality feed barley.

In 1965, the PBI had a breakthrough when they crossed a winter variety called Pioneer with a spring variety called Proctor. They called the offspring Maris Otter, the first truly successful winter barley to perform well in the malthouse.

And perform it did. Maris Otter dominated the UK barley scene through the 1970s, favored as it was by farmers for its yield, by maltsters for its ease of malting, and by brewers for its brewing consistency and depth of flavor.

The most successful barley varieties usually have their heyday for 5 years and then pass on to obscurity as new improved varieties replace them. Maris Otter had an especially long reign for the 15 years after its release, but by the late 70s, it was on the decline.

Dark Days for MO

The situation was looking grim for Maris Otter in 1979, the year British barley breeder Frank Curtis entered the UK breeding world. He recently wrote a great article sharing his insight from those days. His mentor at that time told him that MO was “‘a dying variety…It has weak straw and appalling disease resistance, so it’s really risky for farmers to grow.’” At every encounter, farmers would demand varieties with better agronomic qualities.

Frank and his fellow breeders delivered on this, but the response from further down the supply chain was, “‘We don’t want your new varieties, we want Maris Otter.’” MO had not only become the “industry benchmark for malting quality, it was acquiring a cult status amongst the brewing fraternity.”

Despite its disciples, Maris Otter sunk to the brink of extinction during the 1980s for three reasons. First, newer varieties surpassed MO in almost every agronomic way, and in certain ways in the brewhouse. Secondly, the brewing industry in the UK had consolidated extensively, and the big brewers were quick to ditch a barley variety that increased their production costs.

The third reason is the most intriguing: Maris Otter lost its intellectual property protection. In the UK, plant breeder’s rights protect a variety for 25 years. During that time, farmers need to buy new seed each year, or pay for the privilege to produce their own seed of the proprietary variety. With these rights expired, seed companies no longer had incentive to carry Maris Otter.

In 1989, it was taken off the NIAB (National Institute of Agricultural Botany) recommended list. This could have been the nail in the coffin.

Return of Maris Otter

Thanks to a few dedicated farmers and small brewers who continued to grow and brew with MO during this dark period, it did not completely fade away. What happened next was very unusual.

Maris Otter was noticed by someone who had the means to revive it: two grain traders. By 1990, H Banham Ltd had been in the business for a century, while Robin Appel Ltd was just beginning to trade grain in earnest. They both saw opportunity in this dying variety and decided to jointly buy the rights to it in 1992. Since then, they have been its most prominent advocates and guardians.

They had their work cut out for them – they had to convince farmers, maltsters and brewers that a 27 year old variety could be superior to the superpowered new varieties. Their argument was simple: while new varieties are bred with agronomic improvements in mind, MO was bred for its brewing and flavor attributes. This resonated with the craft beer crowd.

Rebuilding the Seed

But that wasn’t enough to convince the farmers. They couldn’t sell low-quality seed to farmers and expect them to grow it if it couldn’t yield a decent crop. So they took on botany. As Frank Curtis put it, “the partners went back to plant breeding basics and reselected a new, more vigorous strain from the original variety.”

A Maris Otter field in Norfolk, UK

It’s still Maris Otter, but just the best of Maris Otter. By saving the most promising seeds and growing them out year after year, they were able to revive the variety and make it an agronomically acceptable crop.

This work has been ongoing for the owners of Maris Otter. In an article from Beer Today, Tom Rivett, director of H Banham Ltd described it:

Regular re-selection is just part of the work we do to ensure the purity of the strain…So we still regularly take a 30 square metre patch and go through it manually, checking each and every ear of barley. Anything that isn’t a perfect specimen of the Maris Otter variety is discarded. The remaining flawless grain from that patch is harvested separately and used to re-seed the mother field.

5 years after re-selection, all of the Maris Otter grown in the UK will have come from that 30 meter plot. In the same article, Steve LePoidevin of Crisp Malting Group claimed that “the Maris Otter we are now seeing is better quality and more consistent than ever before.”

Maris Otter Today

So where does Maris Otter stand today? Certainly more famous than ever. It got a lot of publicity in 2015 when MO turned 50, accompanied by a big festival with 50 beers brewed with Maris Otter. That year, its owners Robin Appel and Tony Banham (of H Banham) received a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from Parliament, honored for their foresight and “at times, sheer bloody mindedness.”

Despite this celebrity, Maris Otter hasn’t lost touch with its roots (ha ha). It’s truly a British malt, still grown and malted in the same place as it was 50 years ago.

Maris Otter can be a trickier barley to grow than new varieties, but many of its growers are very experienced with it. 90% of MO is still grown in a single county in England called Norfolk. The land there is ideally suited for the crop: the sandy loam soil is well drained, and the maritime climate stays cool and extends the growing season.

Most MO is grown in Norfolk, a county in East Anglia, in England

After harvest, the barley makes a short trip to one of the several UK malthouses that work with this unique variety. Some companies like Warminster and Fawcett’s will floor malt it in the traditional way, while others like Bairds, Simpsons, and Muntons employ the modern pneumatic malting process, and Crisp does both. Fawcett’s has a charming video showing its floor malting facilities.

The many malthouses of Britain. Image from UK Malt.


The Price of Quality

With its claim of greater flavor, Maris Otter malt commands a premium, costing 20-25% more than most base malts. But the market is there – plenty of craft brewers are willing to shell out extra for quality. As Rupert Farquharson of Woodforde’s Brewery said, “No doubt about it, Maris Otter is the Rolls-Royce of malting barleys.”

With its relatively low yields, the price differential is the key to incentivizing farmers to grow MO, so Robin Appel and H Banham will do whatever it takes to keep it that way. They have intentionally limited the production of Maris Otter to the UK in order to retain full control over it.

This may sound like a devious business maneuver, but it’s a necessary act to keep MO alive. In an All About Beer article, Robin Appel explained: “The problem is that there would be some maverick producing it and undercutting the market. If you trash malt price sufficiently, you’ll kill it stone dead. Farmers won’t grow it.” So think about that the next time you complain about the price of Maris Otter.

Largely due to the expense, MO makes up for less than 10% of the barley used to make beer in Britain. Of the 40,000 tons of malt produced in a year, more than a quarter will be sent to the U.S., where it is nearly as popular as in its homeland.

How It’s Used

By this point, I expect you to be quite deeply infatuated with our dear Maris Otter. I’ve extolled its virtues for long enough, so now I’ll talk about how it’s actually used.

An important thing to note about malt, and brewing in general, is that there is no perfect ingredient that will make every beer better. Although Maris Otter is pretty special, it isn’t appropriate to use it in all beer styles.

As you may have guessed, it’s ideally suited to British styles of beer. You’ll find it in recipes for pale ales, IPAs, ambers, and porters, and it’s often used in a 50/50 base malt mix with American 2-row. Some people use MO as 10 to 20% of their grain bill in all kinds of beers to lend them extra maltiness.

Maris Otter is lauded for its rich, full flavor and its strong malt character. It’s variably described as nutty, bready, and biscuity. Wayne Wambles of Cigar City Brewing Co. describes the flavor as “malty-biscuity with the bit of earthiness… At 3°L it tends to add a lot of flavor without much color and is therefore a great foundation for malt forward and low alcohol beers.”[1]

Of course, not all Maris Otter malts are created equal. Each maltster uses a different malting process, so their end products have a different flavor. I have seen Warminster’s MO described as “very dextrinous and tastes like a slightly roasted, peanut butter cookie,” and Fawcett MO as “more toffee, robust, and sweet.” The best way to find out the difference is to try them all!

Some people like the flavor that comes out of Maris Otter while some prefer other malts. In a Brulosophy exbeeriment that compared an ESB brewed with MO vs. a US 2-row malt, a statistically significant number of people were able to detect the difference between the two beers, but exactly half of those people preferred the MO beer and half preferred the US 2-row. In the end, it’s a personal thing.

Drinking History

No matter what side of the preference spectrum you fall on, you can appreciate Maris Otter’s story. It’s the little barley variety that could. It came back from near extinction because there were people who cared about it and became invested in it.

If there was ever a barley variety to accompany the revival of craft beer, or real ale as the Brits call it, it’s Maris Otter. When you taste a pint made from MO, you’re drinking the past, but fortunately also the present.

 

[1] Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse by John Mallett.

 

Enjoyed Our Article? Stay Up to Date by Subscribing Here:

4 Comments on “The Story of Maris Otter: One of “Sheer Bloody Mindedness””

  1. Thanks for the interesting article about the MO variety of barley. I see on the map of the U.K. that there are several good-sized malt houses in the vicinity of Edinburgh. Hopefully you’ll be able to visit a couple of them this spring.

    1. Now that could make for a neat article. The malt they make there goes to the Scottish distilling industry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *