Highs and Lows

element: Barley / DATE: 03/12/2019

THE GREAT TERROIR GAMBLE

Terroir-driven distillation’ is no mere marketing wheeze. The logistics required to arrange our production around 40 individual Irish farms, keeping their grain separate, increases our raw material costs by 10% – before we even begin distilling. Yet this bespoke approach adds even greater challenges: it means we are totally at the mercy of nature.

This effect was felt most acutely for barley grown in 2018. As explained in our recent article, the 2019 harvest was a vast improvement from the year before, which had seen spring sowing hit hard by the Beast from the East, flooding, and then a disastrous drought in the summer. In many cases fertilisers were either simply washed away, or worse, delayed take up by the plants in to grain head rather than leaves.

Buying exclusively from Irish malting barley growers means we have to play the cards we’re dealt. Average protein levels for the 2018 harvest were much higher than usual – in the range of 10 -12% versus the much more favourable 6.9-9.4% for this year. Naturally in any growing season each terroir, each farm, copes differently with the elements; but year versus year, the protein trend was wildly different.

Normally a term that interests athletes or dieticians, ‘protein’ can be a rather abstract notion to those unfamiliar with the distiller’s domain. Why, then, are we so concerned about the ever-changing levels?

Head Brewer Neil

Head Brewer Neil at work inside the Facilitator.

LOW PROTEIN DIETS

If the protein levels are too high there’s less starch available to the maltster, less sugar for the brewer, less alcohol for the distiller. Less whisky ultimately. Though it is that simple, it is, for us, a little more complicated.

Historically protein concerns have been limited to fertiliser applications, the balance between the growers’ desired yields and the maltsters’ proteins. Add too much, the yields increase – but the proteins end up being too high for distilling.

Going ‘un-plugged’ means we do not rely on get-out-of-jail additives to improve spirit yields. We make an entirely natural whisky – simply yeast, water and barley – zero additives in either malting or fermentation: so we need naturally low proteins from the get-go.

Gelatinisation temperature – the ideal strike point to break down malted barley’s starch into simple sugars – is a fine balance. The normal temperature stands at around 64-65 degrees centigrade. Turn up the degrees and it risks deactivating vital beta and alpha amylase, essential for good fermentations.

In the Facilitator, the barley tells us what to do. Remember, we have 40 different barley origins and we don’t want to bludgeon out its voice. The 2018 harvest began to say the same thing, namely that Neil had to increase the gelatinisation temperatures to around 68 degrees centigrade.

The consequences are physical as well as numerical. Our sophisticated mash filter – our terroir-extractor par excellence – is rare to find in a distillery, but it makes us more susceptible to the naturally occurring polysaccharide beta glucan, which is dialled up in high-protein crops. Get that delicate temperature balance wrong and the resulting mash bungs up the filters – which in turn creates quite the mess.

Mash

Looking for the perfect mash.

For the high-protein 2018 harvest, distilled in 2019, the consequence is that spirit yields are down, the cost up. To put this into perspective, we’ve lost approximately 12,000 9-litre cases of potential 2018-harvest whisky that we’ve paid for – to the frustration of all, not least Head Brewer Neil Conway. But it’s not all doom and gloom.

The spirit quality, despite the trials and tribulations of the Beast from the East, is intriguing even if the numbers are not. It’s basic economics – more expensive barley yielding less spirit. We have to acknowledge the reduction to our spirit production, a direct result of the harsh growing year of 2018.

It goes with the turf, so to speak, when distilling one terroir at a time: accepting what the natural world provides. It may well be that the 2018 harvest has the last laugh judging by the intriguing quality of the new spirit.

But such is the gamble of being terroir-driven.