Last Orders

For delivery before Christmas, orders must be placed before
10 pm on December 14th.

Are you curious about the origins of Whisky's natural flavour?

Enter your email address for articles & updates - & to hear about new Waterford Whiskies.

IT'S JUST A QUESTION OF MATURATION. BY ENTERING YOU NOT ONLY ACCEPT OUR INTELLECTUAL CHALLENGE, BUT ALSO
THE USE OF COOKIES & INFORMATION COLLECTION TO ENHANCE YOUR EXPERIENCE.

Are you legally old enough
(and sufficiently curious)
to enjoy terroir-driven whisky?

The Hunt for Hunter

07.11.2022 ELEMENT: BARLEY

DR. HERBERT HUNTER

This is the story of a project set up in south-east Ireland. The aim, to grow barley across a wide number of different farms, and discover how that barley was affected by its total growing environment — its terroir. To understand how barley could be grown better in those terroirs — to find the right barley for each single farm, and, by learning barley, and learning terroir, to ultimately make drastic improvements to a product that had been languishing for decades.

But here’s the thing. This story is set 120 years ago. It’s the story of how Ireland’s malting barley industry was completely overhauled; the story of how this tiny patch of land became arguably the finest place in the world for barley; the story of how some truly legendary varieties came to be. Most of all, it’s the story of Herbert Hunter.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the state of Irish malting barley was parlous. Varieties poorly-chosen for their farm of planting; ill-suited to their terroirs. Farmers saw precious little yield, maltsters found themselves with barley that was hugely frustrating to work with. Quality of barley, from a malting perspective, lagged far, far behind that of Norfolk in the UK, or various countries even in chilly Scandinavia.

In response to this, the biggest customer for Irish malting barley established a project run by the then Department of Agriculture & Technical Instruction. It would be dedicated to improving malting barley in Ireland wholesale.

They wanted to know the best varieties to grow, and the best places to grow their varieties. And if existing varieties weren’t up to scratch, they wanted someone who could crossbreed barleys in search of better malting quality and suitability for Irish terroir (albeit they wouldn’t have used this French term themselves).

That someone was a young British scientist, freshly graduated from Leeds University, one of its first two students to take the B.Sc in Agriculture, Herbert Hunter.  Appointed officer in charge of the Department’s barley investigations, he set about gathering data on every farm involved in the project and every barley variety being grown on each one.

FARM BY FARM, VARIETY BY VARIETY

The level of detail accumulated over the course of the project was truly staggering. Although Hunter himself only stayed in Ireland in his permanent role for the first part of it, the data continued to be collected from 1901 until well into the 1950s — and can be viewed to this day in the archives of the Museum of Rural Life in Reading.

That data comprised every possible statistic for yield, value, quality, nitrogen content and weight of each farm’s crop in every variety, besides the conditions of the vintage for every farm and how each variety was adapted to those conditions. But this was barley grown for practical means — so alongside the growing data, there are pages and pages of records showing malting quality, loss, degrees of saccharification per acre. Not to mention the figures from the experimental brewery in which the malted barley was put to further rigorous tests and examinations.

6B1A5370
Photo Credit to Adam Lines, Museum of English Rural Life

Working through that data, we see a historic record of Ireland’s malting barley evolution. The early names in the project — for the first ten years or so — were Goldthorpe, Standwell, Archer and Old Irish. None were without their challenges. OId Irish, high in nitrogen, early ripening, low yielding, difficult to malt was soon dismissed (though noted for growing well in the sandy soils of coastal eastern Wexford). Goldthorpe malted superbly, but its yields were far too small, partially the result of its staggering height as a plant. Indeed we too have discovered these grains to be far harder to work with — Old Irish providing particular challenges at malting, milling and mashing.

Archer was the clear favourite, from the perspective of the maltster and the farmer, yet it was felt that quality for both parties could be further improved by strengthening Archer’s straw; giving it greater protection from Ireland’s exposed elements.

CROSS BREEDING FOR QUALITY

This was where Hunter’s breeding expertise came in. Numerous crossings were tried — and rejected — before he found a solution. Spratt was a poor, generally ignored variety from the Fenlands of East England, of no real malting quality. But it was a hardy creature with a notably stiff neck — exactly the characteristic Hunter was looking to apply to Archer.

Tested over a few years after breeding, Spratt-Archer was discovered to not only have the durability that the project had been looking for, but had every bit the same quality in the malthouse as its parent, Archer. By 1914 it was being sown commercially, and it was soon the dominant barley in the Irish landscape — as well as widely planted around the world.

Indeed such was the success of Hunter’s barley creation that it remained Ireland’s key barley variety for well over three decades; an astonishing lifespan by barley standards. A letter from Hunter’s old colleague in 1926 comments, amusingly, that he had almost abandoned the crossing trials, since nothing developed since was approaching Spratt-Archer’s quality. He goes on to say that, whilst some new plants were showing promise, all were hybrids of Spratt-Archer, ‘so your legacy will remain intact!’

Hunter’s understanding that terroir was key to the quality of barley, to the suitability of a given variety to any particular patch of land, and to the flavours in a resultant drink, was absolute. In his seminal book, The Barley Crop, he writes: ‘a consideration of the influence of soils and climate, together with that of the husbandry of the crop on the character of the final product, figure largely in all aspects of production.’ Long before writing his book, in a paper discussed in 1913, he commented: ‘whilst quality may be a varietal characteristic, and consequently obtainable by growing varieties of barley showing the highest development in this respect, it is also so largely dependent on the conditions of soil and climate under which the crop is grown that, unless a grower is fortunate in regard to both these conditions, he is liable to suffer from the large range of discrimination in which he was in reality relying to make the difference between a profitable and unprofitable crop.’

IT ALL COMES BACK TO TERROIR

Soil. Climate. The husbandry of a crop. Terroir, in other words — the very vehicle that drives our own work, yet which is so often completely overlooked. These were the lodestars which guided Hunter’s principle, in isolating the best areas for growing malting barley, the varieties best suited to each one, and in establishing the characteristics needed when creating a new crossing. And remember, these experiments were not conducted in the name of simple scientific curiosity — but in the practical ambition of improving the quality, not the yield of a product.

Spratt-Archer, and his work in Ireland, earned Hunter worldwide renown as one of the leading barley experts of the 20th century, and arguably the godfather of modern barley genetics. He became Director of the Plant Breeding Institute at the University of Cambridge, Director of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany and travelled the world, driven by his curiosity around barley and cereal varieties, and the ways in which he felt they could be improved. But it was Ireland which seemed to still occupy most of his heart, and which he continued to visit until his death in March 1959.

Letters still kept in the Museum of Rural Life show the affection Hunter was held in, by Irish farmers and brewers across Ireland and the United Kingdom alike. But perhaps the most poignant was written to him on the 22nd January 1959, by G. P. Jackson, commenting on the still-ongoing barley projects at Ballinacurra, which Hunter had been such a central part of.

‘Dear Dr Hunter

I was sorry I was not able to speak to you on the telephone yesterday and that you are at the moment combined to bed.

I am delighted to hear that you have no objection to our calling our new barley (SAK 17/6) “Hunter” after yourself. We all of us both from the Department of Agriculture and Guinness felt that you had been so long associated with our breeding work over here and had indeed bred one of the parents of the new variety that it would be a fitting and a very suitable name. It looks a good variety and is certainly better than Beorna. It has aroused a certain amount of interest on the Continent and I think it is certainly the best malting barley that has come out of Ballinacurra since Spratt Archer 37/3.

Although at the moment you feel that you cannot make a definite decision as regards your coming to the Maltsters Conference I am not taking it as by any means certain that you will not be with us in the end. I will therefore write to you nearer the time to see whether perhaps you are in a position to come after all.’

Hunter never made the conference. He didn’t visit Ireland again, or even see the variety named after him, bred from his own Spratt-Archer. He died a month after receipt of the letter. But it seems remarkably fitting that the only barley to match his creation for quality during his lifetime was named in his honour.

PARALLEL QUESTS, A CENTURY APART

Herbert Hunter was not necessarily looking for the same things that we are. He worked on behalf of maltsters first and foremost, his primary objective being to create a barley that would malt beautifully and be best for the production of beer. ‘Flavour’ is seldom mentioned in his writings, which may be why he took a dim view of the flavoursome, but unquestionably difficult to malt, Old Irish landrace variety.

But it is impossible to look at the map of the farms he worked with, to read his notes on terroir, soil, climate, varieties and not be struck by the parallels between his work on barley and our quest to unearth whisky’s most natural flavours.

Hunter’s namesake variety lasted less than two decades until it vanished from the Irish landscape; lost to all but a 50 gram bag in the Department of Agriculture’s seed bank. When we launched our Heritage project; our attempt to resurrect the barley flavours of the past, Hunter was a natural choice. After all, on our Journey to develop our own barley varieties, using the terroirs of Ireland as our guiding lights, it is in the footsteps of Dr Herbert Hunter that we are treading.

Photo credit to Adam Lines, Museum of English Rural Life