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Mark Hagger likes to keep busy. “There’s no greater satisfaction,” says Mark, Crisp Malt’s Dry Goods Supervisor, a role which includes running the Sack Plant. “You’ve got a lot of orders coming in, and you know you need to fulfill them … when you walk away at the end of the week, and you’ve bagged more than 100 tonnes, and you’ve kept all those customers happy – that’s a good feeling.”

Busy is one way to describe Crisp’s state-of-the-art Sack Plant in Great Ryburgh, Norfolk: essential is another. This is the engine room of the operation. A team of 16 fills each polypropylene sack with 25 kilos of Crisp’s high-quality malt (whether that be Maris Otter, Best Ale, Black Malt or something else), sending out between 30 and 35,000 tonnes per year. This malt is then shipped all over the UK and indeed the world, from the USA to Vietnam.

It needs to be a smooth operation, and it is. Once it’s been ordered, our brewing and distilling malt is transferred from huge silos to 24 packing bins in the Sack Plant. It then undergoes a strict cleaning process – a rotary dresser to remove dust and large substrate below 1.75mm in size, a destoner that picks up anything 1mm in size and larger, and three hugely powerful rare earth magnets to remove any metal – before it goes to the batch weigher and then is briefly stored in buffer bins.

From there, it’s sent either to the line if it’s going to be bagged as whole malt, or to the Buhler four-roller mill if it’s to be crushed – and then it’s labelled and checked, again, for weight and any metal that might have snuck through. Finally, it goes into bags and leaves the Sack Plant to be loaded onto pallets, en route to breweries near and far. As well as 25-kilo bags, Crisp also has the capacity to pack in one-ton or 500-kilo tote bags.

“The biggest challenge is keeping everything organised, and keeping everything clean,” says Mark. “Malt is a very dusty product! We’re forever cleaning to keep on top of that.”

Josh Bastian is a member of Mark’s team. 29 years old, he has been working as part of the four-man group that transports malt from the silos to the Sack Plant for two years. “It’s 100 times better than my old job,” he says with a chuckle. “Everything works so well – it runs really smoothly. I never leave work stressed.

“It was daunting when I first started because there was a lot to learn. But once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s easy.”

There’s a rhythm to the year’s work in the Sack Plant. January and February are often quieter – although Crisp has had a strong start to this year. Work picks up in late March – mostly to the craft-beer market, Mark says – as Britons start getting outside, at events and in pub gardens and street-food venues. It then gradually increases month on month until August, when it drops off before another peak around Christmas. When there’s a World Cup or something similar, Mark adds, demand rises in the weeks beforehand.

“At harvest time in the summer, it’s very busy,” says Josh, who lives just five minutes from Crisp’s HQ. “But winter can be much quieter. It’s nice to be busy: when you’re loading containers every day, and you’re getting three to four of them out of the door, that’s very pleasing. The amount of tons we get out the door every day is amazing!”

The volume of malt packaged in sacks has grown hugely over the past five years, even despite the impact of COVID-19. “One of my colleagues, he used to say every year, ‘Growth this year will be 15 percent’,” says Mark, who’s been working at Crisp Malt for more than five years. “We used to laugh and joke about it, but when we checked back at the end of the year, he was right! Last year we saw a downturn [in demand], but that looks like it’s coming back this year.”

A sack of Crisp Malt on the bagging line at Great Ryburgh, Norfolk, England

You might assume this is a physically tough job, but Mark insists the real hard work comes after the Sack Plant, when orders are picked and packed. The Sack Plant itself is state-of-the-art, with a bagging line manufactured by market-leading packaging solutions company Premier Tech, which runs an annual check to make sure everything is working as it should. “It makes our lives a lot easier,” says Mark, “and we’re always looking at potential improvements too.”

For Mark and Josh, the Sack Plant is part of everyday life. For those who aren’t used to it, though, it never fails to impress. “We have a Crisp Malt open day every year, when visitors come round,” Mark says. “Everyone seems to be amazed by seeing how it works!

“To us it’s just a daily thing, but visitors are always impressed by what a smooth automated process it is – the way the bags move through, the way they stack on a paddle automatically, the way it’s wrapped and labelled, and then someone on a fork-lift takes it away.” Smooth and effective, no doubt – but, most importantly, crucial to making sure malt arrives with the customer in peak condition, as it invariably does.

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