Thick leather belts rhythmically rattle sturdy, dust laden, story-striding machinery into action. Iron clogs clatter. Ancient pulleys wheeze. There is a sweet smell in the air. The atmosphere is Victorian.
This is not a working museum but Tuckers Maltings in Newton Abbot, Devon, England. Here barley is transmuted into malt in age-old fashion. The Tucker family, with roots as seed merchants and maltsters stretching back locally into the 1600s, established the
malthouse at the turn of the century and still runs it today in the traditional way.
Malt is partially germinated barley baked into a crunchy sugar. It is the key to successful beer brewing, a subject close to the Englishman’s heart. Malt gives beer not only color and flavor but also alcoholic content. In days past pubs brewed their own beer and every community had a malthouse. Now, with brewing dominated by commercialism, there are only a handful of traditional malthouses left in Britain. Tuckers is the only one open to the public. And although malt is also used in whiskey, cookies, and candies, Tuckers’ malt is sold only to breweries.
Managing Director Richard Wheeler claims the secret to a good beer is “best
quality malt. It gives the minimum of problems and more beer per unit. It might cost more, but it produces more. We survive, touch wood,” says the master maltster tapping his chair leg, “on producing quality.”
And Tuckers is not only surviving but thriving on the double businesses of supplying some 30 small breweries, including the brewery that produces Thomas Hardy’s Ale, and running public tours.
Opening the Doors
In the late 1980s Wheeler decided to open the maltings to the public. At that time the malt business was failing but tourism was booming. A handsome profit could have been netted by selling the elegant Victorian building to developers. But the management at Tuckers felt a responsibility not only to perpetuating a traditional industry with a history dating to the ancient Egyptians but also to staff, many of whom have fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers who worked for the company. Wheeler, a distant relative of the Tuckers, has been with the company for more than 30 years, as was his father before him. There is also a long lineage of pest control officers; these rat catchers are furry, purr, lap milk, and love to be stroked by visitors.
Before opening to the public, the building had to be updated and thoroughly cleaned out. Making the building safe enough for the fire officer was a nightmare, as was removing almost 100 years of dirt and debris that crowded corners of unused areas. A treasure trove of old documents and antiquated machinery also came to light and are currently on exhibit.
With the changes women joined the workforce at Tuckers for the first time; eight tour guides were added to the existing staff of seven maltsters, reduced from a pre-war workforce of 40.
The Tuckers tour combines historic displays of what a malthouse would have been like in centuries past and a thorough study of the malting process, including chances to taste the grain in different stages of malting. Tour guide Pat Walker, whose favorite tipple is Ringwood’s Old Thumper brewed with Tuckers malt, has difficulty getting the children in her group past the Discovery Center with its 56-pound pulleys to yank and an assortment of games and hands-on malting displays. But the tour also highlights the giant storage bins containing 50 tons apiece of barley. In the bins the barley is dried to 12 percent moisture to stop germination and mildew. Beyond the bins is a cavernous, wooden-floored room peopled by period-dressed mannequins executing malting tasks. There is opportunity to taste different malts from the pale and sweet for light beers through the ambers to the dark, longer- and hotter-baked malt for stout.
Next stop is a canvas belt carrying the grain to a wooden screener. The bill of receipt for £95 ($150) worth of malt from 1900 hangs on the wall. A network of wheezing belts and huffing motors sifts five tons of barley an hour. The machines select the juicy grains that head for a 12-hour soak in the steeping tank at 55° F. The grains are then drained for another 12 hours and the process repeats itself for 2.5 days.
Through the gloom visitors stumble on ancient, uneven floors then descend and climb a never-ending web of well-worn wooden stairs. Although electric light has replaced the old gas mantle, it is still a dim place and mysterious shadowy forms loom — sometimes a display model, sometimes a maltster. The workers shyly grin and shuffle under the attention of the tourists.
The most popular tour stop is the actual floor malting room. An explosion of camera flashes lights up the work. Twelve tons of honeyed malt needs to be turned every three hours to stop it from matting into a carpet on the 140-foot germinating floor. Children giggle as they try their hands at pulling the giant wooden rake. Everyone tastes the sweet stuff that has been laid down for four or five days to allow the starches to convert to maltose, a fermentable sugar.
Below, in the “stoke hole” furnace of the kiln, one shudders at the reality of working conditions in olden days marked by long, hot hours shoveling coal, inhaling dust and fumes, and by boy chimney sweeps. Today the railway sidings that brought the coal to the maltings are idle, although the mainline train to London still whistles by at high speed. The kiln is now powered by gas, which replaced oil after the price increases of the 1970s.
When the germinated barley shoot, known as green malt, is almost as long as the grain, it is time to head for the kiln. The grain bakes for two days at 150° to 195° F. Screened again to remove the “malt comes,” which is the chaff removed from the dried malt. Now the malt — which looks very much like the barley from the start of the process but tastes much crunchier and sweeter — is ready to be cleaned and bagged.
The Current Malthouse
Today the small-brewery business is booming and tourism is failing, although Tuckers still gets 12,000 visitors trooping through its doors each year. “We’re still doing what we do best: making quality malt,” says Wheeler. “But we like having visitors. With people watching, it keeps us on our toes. Our maltsters are proud of their work and I encourage them to stop and have a chat.”
Visitors can sample beer-inspired, malt-intense cooking in the John Barleycorn Restaurant, but they demanded a taste of the finished product. Three years ago John Lawton and his wife set up the Teignworthy Brewery at Tuckers Maltings. Their beers have garnered many awards and now the tour ends with a glass of their Edwin Tucker’s Devonshire Prize Ale.
Although power shovels have replaced spades and malt goes out in 50-kilogram bags, not 1.5 hundredweight burlap sacks, Tuckers Maltings is rooted in heritage and history, producing a malt for real beer that belies the metal germinating drums and sugar additives of modern commercialism.
“It’s a good company to work for,” Walker says. “Even though conditions in the past were not pleasant to contemplate, they still took care of their workers as best as they knew how. It’s family run and traditional — we don’t even have computers.”
You can find Tuckers Maltings at Edwin Tucker and Sons Ltd., Teign Road, Newton Abbott, Devon TQ12 4AA, United Kingdom. You’ll know when you’re there by the barley grains lining the gutters at the side of the road. The maltings are open to the public daily from Easter through October. Every April some 30 members of the Society of Independent Brewers stage a four-day beer festival at Tuckers Maltings.