Meet Fife's Crafty Maltsters: From field to brewery

Alison Milne and her husband farm 750 acres of mixed arable farmland at Demperston and Dura Mains in Fife.

Thursday, 2nd September 2021, 5:00 am

She admits that, "my whole life is pretty enshrined in agriculture," having been awarded a MBE for services to rural Scotland and agriculture.

She grew up on a farm near Stirling, before working for NFU Scotland.

The couple took over the day to day running of the family farm in 2014 and asked themselves the question, 'where do we want to be in 20 years’ time?'

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They had traditionally grown grain to sell to a merchant, which was then sold to commercial maltsters.

Alison explained: “All we would know was our grain was of malting quality so it would most likely be used in the distilling sector."

But they knew their grain, after it was turned into malt, would be an essential ingredient in the booming Scottish beer and spirits sector, she adds, "It made us realise that malting on the farm could be an opportunity with a huge potential market."

They felt they could add provenance, heritage and value, and she said, "we wanted a profitable and sustainable farming business, for our children's future."

Alison now runs Crafty Maltsters with her husband Dan and her father-in-law, Norman."

Despite having no malting experience, she said: “We all learnt at the same time.

"Don't get me wrong there were moments when we were all just about in tears."

Alison investigated malting further by taking a look at the burgeoning craft malting scene in America, and said, "that was when we really started to get a bit more enthusiastic."

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They made contact with Heriot Watt University, "as we knew nothing about the process, and made some good contacts."

The biggest stumbling block was equipment, she said, "we got quotes for £750,000 so put the idea on hold for a while.”

But in 2019 they took a leap of faith and began malting themselves. Alison said, "it was always niggling away at the back of our minds, if we don't do this then somebody else would.

They found an Italian equipment supplier. This time the price was cheaper and they set about establishing whether or not brewers and distillers were willing to pay.

They also spoke to the James Hutton Institute about heritage barleys, and trialled seven varieties and they have now selected four to grow on which they will be malting soon.

Some of these four heritage malts are destined to travel to Dornoch Distillery to be distilled.

To learn about the malting process Alison spent a lot of time reading text books while Dan and Norman are more practical with their entire careers spent working with grain.

The first stage is harvesting and then the barley is dried to 12 per cent moisture. It is then stored for between six weeks to 12 months to mature and it basically goes to sleep.

She said: "W continually test the grain and we malt the barley the following year, as you have got to treat it with care."

To begin malting, the grain is steeped in water to initiate growth.

The barley is washed three times and it is air rested, to increase moisture levels to 45 per cent, she said, "the critical bit is that it's hydrated all the way through, so it is not straightforward."

The next stage is germination, traditionally it would be a seven day cycle however she said, "we don't push the grain, Dan will basically give it time, up to nine days."

During germination the moisture levels reduce by about a percentage point a day, and it is critical to maintain a stable temperature.

The final stage is kilning where you are locking the flavour in, by using high temperatures to create differences in flavour and colour in the malt.

Speciality malts are where they originally thought their business would be but they had to first learn how to make basic malts, sell them and prove the quality.

Alison adds, "now we can't make those fast enough so our plant is pretty much at capacity."

During lockdown they began supplying some enthusiastic home brewing customers.

"They all say the efficiency they get from our grain is far higher, that means they get more beer, and feel that it is better in terms of the flavour," she said.

Initially business came from smaller breweries but they have just sent ten tonnes of organic malt to Lindores Abbey Distillery, she explains, "it was grown on the organic Falkland estate nearby.

"We malted it for them and drove it along the road in the tractor replicating the original journey made in 1494 when the monks first made whisky." This is the first whisky made in Fife since then.

In Fife there is quite a history of malting, at one time there was a distillery in Auchtermuchty and the owners had maltings nearby and they were widely regarded as being the pioneers of commercial malting in the UK.

Farming has been in both Alison and Dan’s families for more than six generations and they both see themselves as guardians of the land.

They now work with about 24 brewery clients across Scotland.

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