It has taken the biggest Australian-owned brewer 16 years to restart the process it left when Coopers sold its majority stake in Adelaide Maltings to AusBulk to help pay down debt incurred by a move to a new brewery.
Now, a year after it started germinating and processing Australian barley at Regency Park, the site its forerunner made way for long ago, Coopers can now take back control of a large chunk of its supply chain.
Realising malt's commercial potential
Back in the early 2000s, Adelaide Maltings had been supplying breweries in Southeast Asia. Now Coopers has plans to be a major player in the malt market there, in China and across East Asia.
“When Coopers had to sell the malt house, the owners said they would like to get back into malting again.” Doug Stewart, manager of the new maltings, told BeverageDaily. “This project is making good on that.”
He claims it is the most advanced maltings plant in the world, in terms of water usage, process control and automation.
Before he worked for Adelaide Maltings and then Coopers, Stewart had previously been with the Barley Breeding Group at the University of Adelaide. It is through his specifications that innovations such as full-stainless steel construction, enclosed conveyors, and advanced process control and monitoring are included at the maltings.
The water used in production comes from aline aquifers beneath the brewery, and is desalinated on site. Power is mostly drawn from a cogeneration plant, which also provides recovered heat for the kiln.
“It’s a bit on the small side, with a capacity of 55,000 tonnes a year, and it’s very aesthetically pleasing,” Stewart added. “Sometimes malt houses can look agricultural, but this looks like a brewery.”
Compared to Australia’s production capacity, which the former academic says is over 900,000 tonnes a year, it is just a drop in the keg, but it is the only malt house owned by a brewer in Australia.
Not only does it allow Coopers to control its supply chain, from sourcing the barley to malting it, it also provides a revenue stream, with two thirds of production sold to domestic customers and buyers in Asia.
Eyes on Asia
Coopers will use approximately 17,000 tonnes of its capacity for its own beers and the rest will go to independent brewers looking for reliable malt supplies, as well as to food manufacturers wanting malt extracts.
It is in talks with brewers in Japan and South Korea to ship materials to them and already supplies brewers in Southeast Asia. It hopes to have sold all its malt this year.
Japanese and Korean brewers traditionally used to have their own malt houses, but most of these have shut down over time due to changing regulations, like the requirement for brewers only to take locally grown barley. Now those rules have loosened or ceased to exist, a Japanese brewer might take barley from a range of countries, such as Canada, Europe and Australia.
Southeast Asia’s demand for malted barley is buoyed by its hot and humid climate, which makes it difficult to grow barley successfully there. Coopers ships about 2,000 tonnes of malt there a year, to be used in Chang beer.
Supplying a customer with an alternative to their current orders from another country requires a two-year process that ensures that the new variety provides the same taste when it is malted.
“Brewers do feel reasonably confident moving from suppler to supplier and variety to variety. They will normally do trials just to make sure that that variety is agreeable, and that malt is agreeable, to them,” said Stewart.
“We are involved in a project to find the right barley variety for China, because independent brewers there use so few hops that the barley flavour can have an impact.”
Chinese brewers there tend to prefer the flavour that comes with Canadian varieties, so by being able to breed the flavours the Chinese market prefers into Australian barley, Coopers could get access to its 3m tonne per year market.
“They use a Canadian variety, but we’d like it to be an Australian variety. It’s ironic that the craft industry, which loves its hops, is looking for barley with a bit of flavour,” Stewart added.
Locals insist that South Australia is known for produce outstanding barley because of the range of low- to high-rainfall areas in the state. This geography is helpful, especially when the region is going through a drought, when one or both will usually yield good crops.
Coopers is well located to have the choice of these areas. Among the other advantages it enjoys over malt houses in North America and Europe is the uniform hot, dry harvests, whereas other countries can sometimes be troubled by harvest rains.
It also sources grain from Kangaroo Island, which lies off the coast southwest of Adelaide. With the pristine environment there, it is in demand particularly from the craft market, as well as from artisanal distillers.
The brewery has purchased about 1,000 tonnes of barley from Kangaroo Island this year to make malt for its Vintage Ale and also to sell as a high-end product for craft breweries.
Barley had virtually disappeared from the grain fields of Kangaroo Island in South Australia because of low prices and the lack of suitable varieties. But now the crop is sustained by Coopers’ orders.
“The barley needs to leave Kangaroo Island to be malted, then on to independent brewers, but at least some of it stays local and gets put in their whisky. That’s a nice story,” said Stewart.