“Malt is to beer, what grapes are to wine,” James Fawcett, owner of Thomas Fawcett & Sons Ltd, tells me. A seventh generation descendent of his family business based in Castleford, this is a man who is every bit as passionate about malt as his relatives before him. Not many small towns such as Castleford can boast such a resident within its walls, but Fawcett’s have operated from the same site for over 200 years and, on my tour of the site, there are markers everywhere of its heritage.
Having been shown part of a building the pre-dates the Napoleonic Wars and beams that were sourced from Imperial Russia, it would be fair to say that Fawcett’s have played an important role when it comes to England’s beer history. Sadly, though, it’s a business that many residents of Castleford would struggle to name or even place on a map, “If you asked people where the maltster was, most of them wouldn’t have a clue!” James explains, but doesn’t at all sound surprised.
Inadvertently, people will know about Fawcett’s as it regularly blankets Castleford in a lovely roasty smell, to which many people will ask ‘what’s that smell?’ If you peak behind the curtain like I did, that smell is of hand-crafted malt that is still made in the traditional way that it was back in the 1800s. Of course, part of Fawcett’s processes have been mechanised and updated, but they are one of a select few companies still using the floor malting process.
“Mind your head,” James keeps reminding me as we step into one of said floor malting rooms, a room full of old beams and low ceilings and one which, mostly, has remained intact from the early days. “This is what makes our malt different,” James advises as he scoops a sample between his hands, “This will be turned over either by hand or with one of those [pointing to a small plough-like machine] whereas most other companies are now wholly mechanised.”
It’s this, the heart and soul of the business, that James believes set them apart from other companies producing malt. “We grow our own barley that gets malted here about six miles away in Aberford,” he explains, albeit a small percentage of the barley they source, but few other companies can boast the same claim. James lives on the farming estate his ancestors founded just outside Garforth, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Speaking to him, it’s clear that he understands the importance of the part they play in the beer world, not just in the UK bur further afield too, with some breweries using their malt exclusively over any other brands. “We probably supply to over 2000 different breweries all around the world, with an increasing market in North America due to their recent poor harvests,” James told me. He went on to explain that, pre-Covid, he would visit the USA up to three times a year visiting customers news and old many of which not only loved the history behind his business, but the resulting quality thanks to their methods and strict standards.
James took me to their lab where they keep samples of their malt batches for six months, should they receive any historical complaints or queries and have to re-test any of them. “Everything that we make, is tested here before it leaves, “James explains as he reaches for some of the samples currently stored in the lab. He showed me some of his favourite malts they currently produce, a red rye malt one his particular favourites, before explaining their nuances and their effect on beer.
Before taking on his role with the family business, James was a banker in London, and has spent the last 30 years perfecting his craft and learning the business and the industry inside out, and it shows. Having spent time judging beer and starting his career in beer at brewery level, this is a man who knows his stuff and, when speaking to him, it shows. But it’s this knowledge and passion that, because he is on site most days, is passed onto his staff who ensure that the standards set by Fawcett family are upheld to this day.
Whilst most beer drinkers could name the four core ingredients within their glass, it’s unlikely that malt gets the attention that is deserves. With hops stealing all the headlines in recent years, the importance of malt has been somewhat forgotten; without a quality malt base, you simply cannot make a quality beer and it is this which I will hopefully focus on as part of a series of articles in the coming weeks. Many thanks to James Fawcett for taking the time to speak with me and his willingness to work together on future projects too.
For further information on Fawcett’s, their history and methods, you can visit their website; https://www.fawcett-maltsters.co.uk/home.html