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The year is 1965

The Beatles are in full swing, Doctor Zhivago has just premiered, and a pint of beer in the UK costs 1 shilling and 7d or pence (about a dime in today’s money). Behind the scenes, something big is brewing.

Crisp Malt | Maris Otter GerminationIt’s the emergence on to the market of a game-changer. A new malt variety.  One that will soon reach legendary status among ale brewers. One that will still be going strong more than five decades later.

It’s the brainchild of Dr Bell, and is a cross-breed of Pioneer, a winter barley variety, and Proctor, a spring variety. Sure, he was hoping for a fine malting barley when he put the two together. But even he might have been surprised to have known the extent of his legacy.

So, the same year The Beatles gets three number one hits in the UK charts, Maris Otter makes its debut on the beer scene.

Welcome to the 1970s

The decade Microsoft – and CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) in the UK – are founded, The Beatles break up, the first Star Wars movie is premiered, and Maris Otter predominates.

Working its way onto the NIAB (National Institute of Agricultural Botany) recommended list for brewing, who are a crop science organization based in the city of  Cambridge in the UK; there is barely a brewer of pale ales and bitters who doesn’t use Maris Otter at least some of the time.

Its popularity spreads into the 1980s too…

Joining the Rubik’s cube, Madonna, and Pac-Man. But change is afoot.

Trying to restrict the monopoly of the ‘Big Six’ brewing companies in the UK (Allied, Bass, Courage, Grand Met, Scottish & Newcastle, and Whitbread), there’s a UK Government-led shake-up of the beer and pub market. It’s in the form of the Beer Orders of 1989.

Glass of wheat beer in barley field

Cold, continental lagers have arrived as the new kids on the block. They are filled into kegs and start supplanting traditional cask-conditioned bitters and pale ales in the pub. And they are filled into bottles and cans – driving demand in the off-trade at the expense of footfall in the on-trade.

It’s the end of the 80s, and Maris Otter is officially removed from the NIAB list.

Now we’re into the 1990s

The last hurrah of the 20th century. The Spice Girls are the new pop scene phenomenon. The film Titanic scores a hit, going on to become one of the top three highest-grossing titles ever. Tim Berners-Lee, an English computer scientist, invents the World Wide Web. And the first ever text message is sent on a phone. Hello brave new world.

Things are happening in the world of barley too. Grain merchants H Banham and Robin Appel are not happy with the commoditization of the entire grain market. They are convinced that there’s still a place for specialty varieties – ones that lend themselves to floor malting and particular beer styles. They join forces in a quest to save the Maris Otter barley variety.

In 1992, Tony Banham and Robin Appel bought the variety’s rights. They are taking a risk. Most barley varieties are superseded in five or six years. Maris Otter is already the longest-lived, and – it has to be said – it isn’t in the greatest condition it’s ever been in. There’s been a bit of cross-fertilization with other varieties, and of course, some not-so-perfect grains have reproduced, with imperfections passing into subsequent generations.


So begins the restoration of the variety…

To take it back to its original glory. The starting point is the rigorous process of reselection. That’s where specialists in the field of barley (pun intended) walk through crops and aided by distinctive magnifying glasses, carefully examine individual ears and seeds. They pocket only the seed

Crisp Malt | H Banhams checking the sowing of 50th anniversary Maris Otter barley

s that are pure, truest-to-type exemplars of the Maris Otter variety.

These they take away to propagate. Once there are sufficient volumes of these pure and precious seeds, they are planted in a field.

Not any old field. But one in a secret location in the wilds of North Norfolk, UK.

One with a sunny aspect, gentle sea breeze, flattish topography, and light, well-drained soils. One that becomes the ‘mother field’.

Successive generations of pure, unadulterated Maris Otter owe their existence to this mother field – and the painstaking reselection process regularly carried out by Banham’s.

Let us say at this point – as we had been since the first harvest in 1965 – that Crisp Malt is totally invested in the variety and are keen to be part of the rescue operations. We have traditional floor maltings to bring out the best in the barley and brewers who love the resulting malt. Brewers of traditional light and dark ales.

Crisp Malt | Tim Walpole of H Banhams examining the Maris Otter barley

So here we are. Maris Otter is not going to be confined to the annals of history. It has been revived and will become increasingly revered by craft brewers – and, indeed distillers.

1997 and the new version of Candle in the Wind is released, becoming the UK’s top-selling single. Harry Potter materializes, capturing the attention of would-be wizards the world over.

And Crisp floor-malted Maris Otter® is introduced to the US market, enchanting craft brewers with the depth of flavor it produces in their beers.

Into the 2000’s

Brewing Process

The millennium bug ‘Y2K’ fails to create the anticipated havoc. The new century is upon us. Pop Idol and the X Factor deliver numerous number one hits such as Will Young, Evergreen and Leona Lewis, A Moment Like This, and People start listening to music on the internet. And the UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown introduces progressive beer duty in 2002.

This triggers a wave of investment in the UK’s craft brewing sector, and a new generation of brewers, unbound by the shackles of history emerges. 

This loosens the strings holding back many older, highly qualified brewers whose paymasters were previously uninterested in flavor exploration.

Combining old and new, science and craft, convention and adventure gradually permeate the brewing sector. And stupendous new beers emerge, many of which, like their traditional counterparts, insist on nothing less than the best as their ingredients: Maris Otter. Floor-malted. In Gt Ryburgh. Right on the doorstep of the mother field and the many fields it supplies.


We skip forwards into the 2010s

Where Instagram is founded, the last movie of the Harry Potter franchise premieres, and the craft beer market continues to grow.

In 2015, Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Junior, and Elizabeth Hurley celebrate their 50th birthdays. A year when Maris Otter has its 50th anniversary. Crisp Malt together with Banhams and Robin Appel in Norfolk mark the anniversary with brewers from all over the country and abroad. There’s a 3-day festival put on in its honour and 50 different beers using Maris Otter® are brewed especially for the occasion.

Now to the 2020s

Where the Beatles are named the biggest-selling rock band, Dr Zhivago has by now accumulated five Oscars, and a pint of beer costs an average of £3.89 or $5 in the UK.

The decade has begun with global COVID crises at the fore. Beer markets worldwide see changes in consumption patterns, and craft brewers pull all the stops out to adapt and survive. Many are still reeling, but they work towards recovery.

Crisp Brewing Malt RecipesThey know there will always be a demand for flavorsome beers – high, low or no alcohol. And they know that quality, consistency and character matter.

So, not surprising that Maris Otter® is still going strong.

In fact, it’s not so far off reaching the age of 60. Who knows what will be top of the pops in 2025 – and which champion beers Maris Otter® will be still creating for its diamond anniversary?

While we wait, us maltsters are raising a glass to those expert farmers who produce this remarkable barley for us, and to those discerning brewers and distillers who use it to produce drinks of distinction.

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