For the first time this year, at the beginning of July, we had the great fortune of being guests at Simpsons Malt, one of the largest and most renowned malt producers in England. These two days allowed us to experience the quality and uniqueness of Simpsons Malt firsthand, leaving us with many indelible memories…
We want to share some of them with you, recounting in this article what we lived through.
The departure is scheduled for early afternoon, from Venice Airport, to land a couple of hours later at London Stansted Airport. Upon arrival, we head to our hotel in Diss, in South Norfolk, where we are welcomed by none other than Richard Simpsons and Jamie Ramshaw (Vice President and Technical Sales Manager of Simpsons Malt), who would be our hosts for the next two days. Despite the late hour, we head to a taproom for a first taste of what awaits us in the following days.
First Stop: Ampersand Brew Co.
The brewery has a 20 hL brew house, with various cylindro-conical fermenters of 10, 20, and 40 hL. Attached to the brewery is a lovely tap room with a kitchen, where we could pair the beers with a substantial sandwich and chips. The brewery’s tap list includes twelve “classic” taps and four English hand-pulled pumps. The styles offered range from hoppy APA and Hazy IPA to sours with special ingredients, nitro stouts, and lagers. The classic bitter on hand-pump is a particular favorite, with its excellent balance between the sweet malt notes, fruity yeast hints, and a pronounced hoppy bitterness. Once well-fed and quenched, we head back to the hotel to prepare for the intense day ahead.
The next day starts with a champion’s breakfast: a classic full English breakfast! Eggs, fried bread, baked beans, black pudding, bacon, sausages, and a tomato (for some detox!). We also take the opportunity to taste Marmite, a spread made from brewer’s yeast extract. We had heard about it in some tasting books; it’s a sensory standard for the defect that yeast autolysis can cause in beer. For those wondering what it tastes like, I would say it’s a mixture of soy sauce, broth, and licorice. Not something I would eat by itself, but still an interesting experience.
Second Stop: Simpsons Malt, Tivetshall St Margaret Plant
After consuming enough calories for the next twelve days in one meal, we head to Tivetshall St Margaret, where one of Simpsons’ two production sites is located. Tivetshall Plant produces all the malts for breweries, while the Berwick-upon-Tweed plant, in the North on the border with Scotland, handles the production of malts for distillation.
Once at the plant, Richard introduces us to the company’s history and values. Simpsons Malt was founded in 1862 initially as a grain trading business. Only ten years later, in 1872, the then-owner James Parker Simpsons decided to expand the business and invest in a malting house, changing the company’s destiny forever. Since then, the company’s values revolve around a sincere passion for malt, which is reflected in a constant focus on product quality, continuous investments, and control of the supply chain from field to glass (through the McCreath Simpsons & Prentice division, which deals directly with growers). For five generations, Simpsons Malt has remained an independent, family-run company.
We are then guided through the various stages of malt production and learn about the dynamics that govern the development of new varieties of malting barley (which can be for distillation, brewing, or multipurpose), the complex barley market, and the importance of a solid trust-based relationship with growers.
The most cultivated varieties in England are currently Planet and Laureate, known for their good agronomic performance (yield per hectare, resistance to lodging, and pests/diseases) as well as their excellent malting characteristics (protein content around 9.5%, good and regular grain size). Despite their lower agronomic performance, there are still two “ancient” varieties, Maris Otter and Golden Promise, which are cultivated for their organoleptic characteristics. Maris Otter has biscuity notes that are particularly appreciated in traditional bitters, while Golden Promise imparts a certain sweetness and fullness of flavor, which is highly valued in hopped beers.
After this initial presentation, we are taken on a full tour of the production site by Graham Kendall (Operations Manager at the Tivetshall plant), from barley intake lines to steeping tanks, germination and drying areas, roasting drums, to the packaging and storage warehouse. We are impressed by the order and attention to detail in all stages of the malting process.
After the tour, we have the opportunity to taste the entire range of Simpsons malts, guided by Jamie, who explains the production process and the organoleptic characteristics. After a malty aperitif, there is time for a quick lunch while Adrian Fischer and Rob Austin (Supply Managers for the Southern region) update us on the current harvest situation. Unfortunately, 2023 has also been characterized by inconsistent precipitation and periods of drought, conditions far from the average levels of the past 20 years. This results in a harvest that will be average, but with some variability depending on different geographic growing regions.
It’s time to get our hands on, literally, the main raw material of beer. We head to the first farm, where we learn about other key aspects of barley cultivation, such as crop rotation, and the critical factors that can determine the success or failure of a harvest. With caution, we also have the opportunity to walk among the barley spikes and take some very artistic photos.
Thirst begins to set in, and it’s time for a visit to a brewery! We get in the car and head towards the sea, to Southwold, where the Adnams Brewery production facility awaits us.
Third Stop: Adnams Southwold Brewery
Fergus Fitzgerald (Production Manager) greets us and guides us through all the brewery rooms, from the brew house to the fermentation cellar, and to the distillery and the cellars where whisky barrels are aged. The brewery still uses some square section non-pressurizable fermenters for primary fermentation. The house yeast is a blend of two strains, one more flocculent and one less flocculent, which are recovered and reused, kept in balance by adding the strain that tends to decrease. The brewery, however, stands out for its use of cylindro-conical fermenters, a brew house with multiple tanks (in the German style), and the use of yeast strains outside of those “in-house.” This results in a very varied range of styles, from the very British Southwold bitter (3.7%) and Broadside premium bitter (4.7%) to the hoppy Ghost Ship (4.5%, with Citra hops) and Mosaic Pale Ale (4.1%, with Mosaic hops), as well as seasonal Belgian and German-style beers. The annual production is around 139,000 hectoliters.
Since 2010, the distillery has been in operation, producing highly appreciated and award-winning gin, vodka, and whisky.
Fourth Stop: Sole Bay Inn
Now it’s gotten quite late, and it’s time to head to the pub outside the brewery, the Sole Bay Inn, to rest our legs and finally taste the beers produced by Adnams. Given my passion for traditional English beers, I waste no time and immediately sample the Southwold bitter and the Broadside bitter, both served through the English hand-pulled pump, directly from the cask. I’m very impressed by the extremely ‘young’ profile of the beer. The yeast notes are pronounced, as is the malt, and the bitterness and hop aromas. Despite the flavors not having fully melded yet, as is customary with a beer that’s had a few more weeks of maturation, the drinking experience is nonetheless very balanced, and as soon as you ‘get a taste’, the beer flows dangerously well.
Fifth Stop: The Harbour Inn
We don’t linger on the two beers for too long, because dinner awaits us. We walk towards the River Blyth, giving us a chance to appreciate a beautiful view of the English countryside (and the end of a golf game).
Arriving at The Harbour Inn, we order dinner (on the locals’ recommendation, I go for an unforgettable fish & chips), and take the opportunity to try more beers from Adnams’ selection: Ghost Ship and Mild. Then, inevitably, I return to the Southwold bitter, already regretting that when I return to Italy, I won’t be able to drink it so young. Between one beer and another, the evening continues, while Jamie tells me about the peculiarities of English yeasts and the most iconic traditional beers. I’m already planning a return to England…
At the end of dinner, we wrap up the evening at The Lord Nelson Inn, where with a couple more pints, memories become a bit blurry… In any case, the survivors make plans to meet the next morning, to clear their heads with a frigid swim in the Southwold sea, as tradition dictates!
As promised, the next day, the bravest among us take a dip in the sea, and then another hearty breakfast, in the splendid setting of The Swan Southwold Hotel.
It’s time for the final visit, so we head towards Cambridge, to another farm.
Here, we have the opportunity to hear the story of another grower and appreciate the attention, commitment, and passion he dedicates to brewing barley cultivation. In recent years, difficulties have increased, with increasingly unpredictable weather conditions, and an uncertain global economic situation leading to large fluctuations in the costs of fertilizers and pesticides, and a highly volatile grain market price. For many farmers, there are more enticing crops than brewing barley, less demanding and more profitable, so continuing with this type of crop is not an obvious choice. This is why Simpsons Malt invests heavily in creating a relationship of trust with growers (through the McCreath Simpsons & Prentice division), resulting in significant long-term agreements.
A few last photos in the barley fields, and our journey comes to an end. We bid farewell to Richard and Jamie, with endless gratitude, and hoping to see them again soon. In just two days, they managed to help us understand and appreciate much of what lies behind the Simpsons Malt brand, and the people who work there. With a bit of nostalgia, we head to Stansted Airport, but already thinking about the next trip to England.