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Maris Otter is a two-row "winter" variety of barley, commonly used in the production of malt for the brewing industry. The variety was bred by Dr G D H Bell and his team of plant breeders at Cambridge. It was introduced in 1966 and quickly became a dominant variety due to its low nitrogen content and superior malting characteristics.
Dr Bell bred Maris Otter in Cambridge 40 years ago with the express purpose of producing a barley variety that would give consistently high quality malt for the cask-conditioned ale market. It was bred by crossing the two varieties 'Proctor' and 'Pioneer', and it soon became the foundation of the finest English cask-conditioned ales. After many years of being the most widely grown malting barley, crosspollination and use of uncertified seed brought about the decline of the variety.
Although no longer on the recommended list of approved malting barley varieties, where it has been outclassed in yield by newer varieties, there is still a demand for Maris Otter malt from the brewers of high quality cask ales, such as Adnams and Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries. In 1991-2, a consortium was formed between H Banham Ltd in Norfolk and Robin Appel Ltd in Hampshire, which approached PBI, which owned Maris Otter, with the express purpose of rejuvenating the variety to satisfy the demand of the real ale market. This consortium bought the sole right to market the seed. Much work was done to clean up the variety to make it commercially viable once again, the consortium now being able to control the supply of seed and ensure it was only grown by the best growers on the most suitable soils. A unique three-way contract between farmer, merchant and maltster enables the farmer to be paid a substantial premium to give him a fair return for his effort and risk. For this reason, Maris Otter commands a premium over modern varieties such as 'Optic' or 'Pearl'.
In 2002, Maris Otter was bought outright by H Banham Ltd and Robin Appel Ltd, which have continued to improve the variety. NIAB, the country's premier independent botany company, has been employed to further eliminate contaminants and select only the best ears for propagation, to ensure Maris Otter preserves its original identity and will not compromise the traditional flavour of some of Britain’s finest beers.
Maltsters find Maris Otter is easier to malt than some modern varieties. It matures quickly after harvest, there are no dormancy problems and the thin skins absorb water easily, giving no processing difficulties. It has the ability to produce grain with low levels of nitrogen, when grown in the right conditions and with the appropriate treatment. It has a reputation as a flexible and responsive variety for maltsters and brewers. Brewers like Maris Otter malt because it is easy to handle and very "forgiving" in the brew house and, more importantly, is perceived to add the unique Maris Otter flavour to the beer that is much favoured over malt from modern varieties, which are grown for yield and ease of production for the grower.
Today, Maris Otter malt is available to all brewers, large and small, and formalised arrangements can command a "tailor-made" supply of malt to enhance the image of the brewing customers, e.g., "Hampshire Malt for Hampshire Beer". From the outset, Maris Otter demonstrated its ability to produce grain with low nitrogen levels, as well to provide a uniquely reliable performance in both the maltings and the brew house. With the established support of CAMRA and recognition of its true worth by the major maltsters and brewers, who even name it on their bottle labels, Maris Otter is today acknowledged across the brewing world as the finest-quality malt available and probably the only variety grown to achieve exactly what brewers require.