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The last maltsters in Hertfordshire

PUBLISHED: 09:51 22 May 2017 | UPDATED: 09:51 22 May 2017

Barley is soaked then dried so it partially germinates, producing the sugar necessary for alcohol (photo: Julien Tombini/Thinkstock)

Barley is soaked then dried so it partially germinates, producing the sugar necessary for alcohol (photo: Julien Tombini/Thinkstock)

Julien Trombini/Thinkstock

Liz Hamilton visited the last maltsters in Herts, who are keeping the county’s long tradition of malt production alive

The former malthouses are now an enterprise centre housing more than 150 businesses (photo: French and Jupp)The former malthouses are now an enterprise centre housing more than 150 businesses (photo: French and Jupp)

In 2016 Campaign to Protect Rural England Herts introduced a new category into its Rural Living Awards – Rural Business in the Community, to recognise companies that have made an outstanding contribution to rural or village life. The first recipient was French and Jupps, maltsters in Stanstead Abbotts near Ware. Responding to the receipt of the award, managing director David Jupp said, ‘It has always been a priority for our company to be a contributor to our local village community and for this to be appreciated is very gratifying’.

French and Jupps was nominated after sponsoring the village car park, enabling its free use. This has helped to sustain the thriving shopping centre with its variety of independents and cafés in, bringing in visitors and freeing up on-street parking for blue-badge holders.

Aware that it was the last of a once-thriving malting trade in Hertfordshire, I wondered how French and Jupps were able to continue. Talking to David revealed a success story founded on timely decision-making and innovation. His great-grandfather, also David Jupp, expanded the family malting business to Stanstead Abbotts in the later 19th century, but the family has made malt for over 300 years, originally in Sussex and then in London. The name of French came from a local carrier, Margaret French.

A malting county

Malt is produced from soaked and then dried cereal grains (most commonly barley), which partially germinate, producing sugar that yeast converts to alcohol in beer and whisky production. Traditionally, the soaked grain was spread on large floors and dried by hot air produced in kilns, drawn upwards through the distinctive fantailed or rectangular cowls that are still a feature of surviving malthouses. The grain had to be turned regularly with large wooden shovels. Sometimes the grains were also roasted to achieve varied colours and flavours. The process produced the distinctive toasty smell which must once have pervaded many Hertfordshire towns.

For centuries towns on the river Lea, dominated by Ware, were pre-eminent suppliers of malt in England, especially after the river was improved for navigation in the 1700s. As London’s population grew, so did the demand for beer, often regarded as safer to drink than the local supplies of water. North and east Hertfordshire and adjacent counties have the soil and climate to grow the finest barley and a malt market was recorded in Ware in 1339. By 1880 the town had no less than 107 malthouses marked on an early Ordnance Survey map.

Once a common sight in the county - a fantailed cowl at French and Jupps former malthouse which drew hot air up from the kilns used to dry barley grain (photo: French and Jupps)Once a common sight in the county - a fantailed cowl at French and Jupps former malthouse which drew hot air up from the kilns used to dry barley grain (photo: French and Jupps)

Changing times

In the 20th century malting in Hertfordshire declined, partly because brewing at Burton-on-Trent (using local malt) competed with London’s brewers. In the 1970s, with mechanisation replacing traditional ‘floor’ malting, French and Jupps decided to concentrate on coloured malts, which has enabled the business to survive and flourish. Now the global leader in the production of these specialised roasted malts, offering a range of colours which impart flavour, colour and sweetness, the company has been well-placed to capitalise on the diversification of beer production in recent years which has responded to a popular move towards new ‘craft’ ales.

The company built new premises to accommodate modern computer-controlled machinery. The old grade-listed maltings with their rooftop cowls now house a thriving business centre occupied by more than 150 small enterprises. This too has helped to sustain the vitality of Stanstead Abbotts, a source of great pride to David Jupp. The company still buys its barley from Hertfordshire too, via the North Herts Farmers co-operative.

The company’s output of malt has trebled since 1980, with a third supplying UK brewers. A third is used by food manufacturers, since the sweet taste of malt, its distinctive flavour and its colour contribute to household-name brands like Maltesers and Shreddies, as well as to gravy granules, malt vinegar, cola and malted bread, to name but a few.

The final third produced is exported, especially to the USA, where there has been a similar boom in craft drinks as in the UK.

Barley was traditionally dried by spreading accross the floor of the malthouse - here by young women at the Stanstead Abbott's site (photo: French and Jupp)Barley was traditionally dried by spreading accross the floor of the malthouse - here by young women at the Stanstead Abbott's site (photo: French and Jupp)

‘We supply the burgeoning craft brewing business there – since American beer drinkers have at last rediscovered its taste, lost since prohibition,’ David explains.

As we spoke, a lorry passed the window to be loaded with nearly 20 tonnes of malt, bound for Minnesota. Similar loads are dispatched daily. It’s good to know that grain grown in Hertfordshire fields is finding its way into the hearts of Americans.

To make a nomination for the 2017 CPRE Herts Rural Living Awards, visit cpreherts.org.uk

The awards are in three categories for groups: community, environment and business, and two categories for individuals, including a young person who has made a special contribution to rural life. The closing date is Friday, May 26.

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