Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A visit to Port Ellen Maltings

Welcome to Port Ellen Maltings

The Port Ellen Maltings is a large facility on the Scottish island of Islay that produces malted barley for use in the whisky industry.  It is the only commercial malting facility located along the entire length of the west coast of the UK, and the only one in the UK to use peat during the kilning part of the process.  It is peat and the smoke that it produces that gives the barley, and ultimately Islay's famous whiskies, the smoky flavour.  Port Ellen Maltings is not open to the public, but we were privileged to be taken on a tour during our recent trip to Islay.  Our guide was Maltings Manager Ramsey Borthwick.

Port Ellen Maltings

Port Ellen Maltings is located on the outskirts of the village of Port Ellen on the southern coast of Islay.  The village is the largest settlement on the island and the facility dominates the local skyline.  It is owned and operated by Diageo and was opened forty years ago in 1973.  The idea for the maltings was due to Scottish Malt Distillers (the company that would eventually become Diageo) deciding to produce their own malt for their three Islay distilleries at Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Port Ellen, rather than buying it and transporting it from commercial maltsters on the mainland.

The old Port Ellen warehouses

The site at Port Ellen was chosen due to its close proximity to the village's deep natural harbour, where the vast quantity of grain required is still delivered today.  It was built next the Port Ellen distillery and the pair ran side-by-side for 10 years until the distillery was closed in 1983.  Now only the distillery's warehouses remain, which back on to the sea, and these are used to mature limited stocks of Lagavulin and Caol Ila.  The maltings now supplies all bar two of Islay's single malt distilleries, each with their own specification for malt, plus one distillery on another island.

Pieces of Port Ellen history

Our tour began in a small area beneath the grain silos.  Here there were a few pieces of memorabilia from the old Port Ellen distillery including the foundation stone, which was laid in 1824, the sign and a marrying tun.  Port Ellen single malts are now highly sought after and 30 years later it may seem strange that the distillery was ever closed, especially in these boom times.  However, the early 1980s was one of the worst slumps in the whisky industry and SMD made the decision based on the fact that Port Ellen was the smallest of their three Islay distilleries and the one with the most sporadic production history.

After these moments of nostalgia, we moved right to the top of facility and the steeping room.  Matt's vertigo kicked in due to an open mesh floor and stairs that allowed a view right to the bottom, about 5-6 storeys down.  The room is home to eight large steeping vats and it is here where the first part of the malting process takes place.  Ramsey hit us with some staggering figures and explained that the steeping is arguably the most important part of malting, as if it goes wrong then it can never be rescued.

The steeping room

The statistics are impressive - each of the steel vats can hold 25 tonnes of barley and 30,000 litres of water.  The majority of the barley (mostly the Concerto variety this year) comes from England, arriving in Port Ellen harbour by boat.  Local water from the Leorin Lochs is used and this contains peat picked up as it runs through the many bogs on its way to the maltings - this makes it brown in colour and stain the inside of the vats.  The vats are cylindrical with a conical base.

Inside a steeping vat

The malting process is important as it turns the starch present in the grain to sugars - these are not present in untreated barley and are needed to be converted in to alcohol.  The steeping process wakes the dormant barley grains, essentially tricking them in to thinking that it is Spring.  The barley is soaked in water to raise the moisture content and initiate growth.  This is then drained and air is blown through the grains, before they are soaked again.  This is repeated a number of times over a 42 hour period until the barley has a moisture content of 44%.

As the barley begins to grow the starch begins to get broken down to feed the shooting embryo.  This sees carbon dioxide and heat emitted, and oxygen absorbed.  The steeping vat is too compact to allow this, so the barley is passed to the next stage of the process - the germination drums.  These allow fresh cool air to move more freely between the grains and gives the maltsters power to control required growth levels.

A germination drum

Port Ellen has seven cylindrical steel germination drums and the sheer scale of them was only really grasped when we moved down from the steeping room to the drum room floor.  Each drum is huge and can hold the capacity of two steeping tanks - that's about 80 tonnes of barley at 44% moisture content.  The row of all seven drums is an impressive site in the cavernous space and looking up we could see the bottom of the steeping vats way up in the roof.  They are the largest malting drums in the northern hemisphere.

Inside the drums the perfect environment for the barley to grow are recreated.  Humidified air is blown in to prevent the barley drying out and by controlling the air flow, humidity and temperature the best possible growing conditions are maintained.  As the grain roots begin to grow they knit together and create a solid lump.  This will prevent the correct growth if left, so the drum is rotated fully every eight hours.  During this process, any knitted roots are separated.

The barley remains in the drum for five days and at this point the growth has reached the optimum level.  This is tested in two ways - the acrospire (the shoot that will eventually become a barley plant) should be a certain length and the endosperm (the white inner part of the grain) should leave a fine white powder when rubbed between fingers.  At this stage the barley is called 'green malt' and is ready for kilning.

Green malt

Port Ellen has three kilns, each of which can take the contents of one full drum of green malt.  These are housed side-by-side in an impressive long hall next to the drum room.  The main objectives of the kilning process are to halt the growth process and reduce the moisture in the barley to between 4-6%.  Once this has been done the malt can be stored indefinitely in the correct conditions, although most is transported to distilleries and used within 10 weeks.

Ramsey explains about kilning

The process sees the green malt loaded in to a cylindrical room that has mesh flooring.  Hot air is then blown up through the floor to heat and dry the barley.  The introduction of peat at this stage is what differentiates Port Ellen from every other commercial maltings in the UK.  The dried peat is loaded in to an oven at the bottom of the kiln and built in to a fire so as to create plenty of smoke without excessive heat.  Having said that, it was still very warm when standing close to take photos like the one below.

Peat burning in the kiln

The peat used at Port Ellen is all harvested from the Castlehill peat bog, which is located a few miles from the maltings, to the tune of 3,000 tonnes per year.  Six tonnes of peat is used per each batch of grain.  As the smoke rises from the peat fire through the mesh and into the kiln, it permeates the husks of the barley.  The chemicals in the peat smoke are called phenols and it is the husks where these are stored.  The phenols are carried through the entire whisky making process and they give the new make spirit and final matured product its smoky aroma and flavour.  A full batch will take 43 hours to be fully kilned.

The amount of phenols absorbed by the grain is measured by a PPM (Phenol Parts per Million) scale*.  As mentioned, Port Ellen produces malted barley for the majority of Islay's whisky distilleries with each having its own specification and PPM level.  Port Ellen produces malt between 25 and 60 PPM to cover all orders, with the amount of peat smoke exposure controlling the final level.  Once kilning is complete, the roots and shoots are removed and the malt is analysed before being stored in silos.  After a period of 'resting' it is ready to be collected and start the rest of its whisky journey.

*For more information on peat and the PPM scale - please visit our 'Explain about ... Peat' post. 

We found the opportunity to go around the Port Ellen Maltings a hugely educational one.  We quickly realised that we knew very little about this important aspect of the whisky business and learnt so much by listening and speaking with Ramsey.  We would like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to Diageo for arranging the visit for us and to Ramsey for his hospitality and sharing his knowledge.


Scotch Cyclist said...

Another excellent post, guys: thorough but readable. Matt, I can sympathise on the vertigo front!
I've just come back from a tasting with Bowmore's Eddie MacAffer and he went into some detail regarding the malting process. As you say, getting it right is critical if you are to guarantee yield and flavour.
I'm guessing the maltings no longer use the Port Ellen pagodas - which are also still extant from the distillery's heyday?

Anonymous said...

A great, educational post. I knew absolutely nothing about the commercial facility at Port Ellen and had no idea they produce such a massive volume of malted barley in what is really quite a precise process.