"Happiness is having a rare steak, a bottle of whisky, and a dog to eat the rare steak.” - Johnny Carson

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Portgordon Maltings. Supporting Speyside's Scotch Whisky Empire.

November 12, 2016

Crisp Maltings. This is going to be an interesting one, because we are now at the very beginning of the supply chain and not a distillery visit! I was thrilled when Richard Lake, from Crisp Maltings in Port Gordon, said he would take the time to meet with me. I will talk about the basics of malting and also the kinds of equipment and capacity that these large maltsters have. Here at the Port Gordon facility they are producing around 40,000 metric ton of malt per year. The facility was built in 1979 and as you can imagine, they are strategically placed to support the Speyside whisky region. It’s easy to assume the Scotch industry is doing quite well, because the facility is under construction and being expanded. The general process that I discuss will be similar to most malting facilities, but exact details and specifications are specific to Port Gordon’s facility.

 

Now before you can even malt barley, you need to grow it as a crop. Part of Crisp Maltings job is to set contracts with reliable farmers to grow their required barley. There is a specific harvest time for the barley they want, which runs from about mid-August to mid-October depending on when the crop was planted and what region it is in. It is essential to get the barley off the farm and into the malting facility for quality control and storage. Barley naturally goes through a dormancy period and that has to be monitored by the maltsters. The ideal moisture content during the storage of raw barley is around 12%. Most of the barley is purchased from farmers in the Aberdeen and Inverness area. I asked Richard about vintages and if barley had “high quality vintages” like when vineyards have a good vintage or grape crop year. It apparently really isn’t about the vintage, it is all about the yield/liters of alcohol you get from the grain. That is why you see different strains of barley promising higher yields, being launched all of the time.

 

There are three basic steps to malting barley that each take a specific amount of time. These three steps are: 1. Steeping 2. Germination and 3. Kilning. These three steps are true for malt going to both brewers and distillers. They can run about 4 or 5 batches at one time through the facility and each batch consists of about 220 tonnes of barley which will eventually turn out to be about 180 tonnes of malt.

 

Step 1- Steeping.

They will cover the raw barley in 12 degree Celsius water for about 5 hours. They then run little bubbles of air through while it’s steeping to keep things moving. This process is setting up an environment for the barley to begin germination. At this point the moisture content will have risen anywhere from 38-40%. It is then allowed to air rest for about 15 hours and soaked a second time, sometimes even a third.

 

Step 2- Germination.

Now after the second steeping, the barley is at about a 44% moisture content. The embryo is now very active and creating rootlets, because it is essentially getting ready to grow another barley plant. They allow germination to happen over a 4-5 day period within one of the three germination vessels. They have to be careful here as rootlets are okay, but they do not want the rootlets to entangle or to grow any chutes. This is why they have rotating arms in the vessels agitating the barley to make sure it doesn’t attach to itself making a “rug”. In the traditional style of malting, you would see men running rakes through the malt during germination to prevent this “rug” from forming.

 

Step 3- Kilning.

After the 4-5 day germination period the growth of the barley needs to be stopped and is moved to one of the two kilns. Now if the specifications were for a peated malt, then this malt has to be moved to a completely separate peat kiln. They never use a direct flame and use steam for heat and the grains will be gently heated for 1-2 days. After sufficient drying the new malt is ready to be de-combed or “dressed” to take off any excess pieces and bits and moved to storage. Typically malt will sit for at least 2-3 weeks before going off to a production facility. Now you would think cleaning this facility might be difficult, but they actually just use high pressure water and don’t need to use caustic. There are a few bi-products from this process and if they can’t utilize it and make it into cattle feed, they send it out to sea during high tide. This is similar to Glenglassaugh and other distilleries by the sea.

 

A few malt characteristics that a customer could ask for are peated, roasted, regular, phenol levels etc. These are just a few for distilling malt. For beer making there are even more specifications that can be requested. There are also a few characteristics that are expected from the malt supplier which include low moisture and low nitrogen. Although the Port Gordon facility is primarily supporting the Speyside whisky region right now, they also work with smaller start up distilleries. Typically MOQ’s are set or you at least have to take what a larger customer is using. Production has increased specifically for peated malt as we have seen in the industry and they have even been supplying some peated malt to Japan!  At the moment Crisp only needs to focus on malted barley. Down in the south of Scotland, where more grain distilleries are located, Crisp Maltings has facilities that focus on wheat and maize.

 

Check out the link below. It is information about the expansion at Port Gordon and an aerial view of the facility that I visited.

http://www.thwhite.co.uk/strength-to-strength-north-border/

 

It is really quite amazing to see the capacity that this facility has and it is not even the largest in Scotland. They have at least 40-50 lorries coming on site a day to drop off farmers barley crop. It is quite a scene to watch as they roll up, get weighed and tests are run immediately on site to deem if the crop is of sufficient quality. I would recommend anyone that is interested in making their own whisky like I am, or understanding the true origination of where whisky comes from, that this is what you need to see. It is still quite amazing that we get so many blends and single malts from this one crop.

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