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Premium grain for premium products

Matt O’Keeffe attended the Teagasc National Tillage Conference and was encouraged to hear that the authority is intensifying its research into the potential of Irish grain crops to make a bigger impact on our burgeoning distilling sector

As Irish whiskey, led by Jameson, continues to compete for the top spot over Scotch among global whiskey drinkers, the opportunities for Irish grain growers to supply more of the grain raw materials necessary for the distillation process seems significant. A presentation from Dr Sinead Morris of South East Technical University (SETU) and Lisa Ryan of Teagasc confirmed the commitment of Teagasc towards encouraging more substitution of imported grain for distilling with Irish grown product.

A collaborative exercise

A current research collaboration entitled DABBING CAP is a major Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine-funded project – with Teagasc and SETU, working with TUD – aiming to produce and to process Irish wheat and novel grains such as rye, maize grain and spelt as a direct replacement for imported maize.
As part of the research, for instance, the grain characteristics that render Irish wheat suitable for Irish whiskey will be identified and confirmed. In the same way, several other Irish grains, including rye and home-grown maize, can be analysed in terms of their suitability to the Irish distilling sector.

The wheat option

Wheat, in particular, has significant potential to make an impact on Irish distilling processes. As was heard at the Tillage Conference, Irish grown wheat can replace imported maize grain. It is, as has been confirmed over many years of cropping, suited to the Irish climate. It is a high-yielding crop. In fact, the Irish climate is conducive to producing among the highest wheat yields in the world, though high levels of inputs are required including crop protectants and fertilisers. In addition, we have growers who have built up great expertise in growing and managing wheat crops over many decades. Wheat has the capacity to deliver good alcohol production, which, ultimately, is the acid test of a grain’s usefulness in distilling processes.

There are, as was noted by the researchers, some concerns around wheat use, as there are with many other grains, including processing issues. For example, the grain composition’s impact on alcohol production and the benefits of soft versus hard wheats in the distilling process. The impact of nitrogen-fertiliser-use rates is important in maximising high starch and resulting alcohol yields. Two hundred kilogrammes per hectare is recognised as the benchmark input level that should provide an increase in starch and a consequent alcohol increase.

A centre of excellence

Scientific research comes to the fore in delivering a premium outlet for Irish-grown grain to be used in the distilling and brewing sectors. The establishment of a National Centre for Brewing and Distilling (NCBD) should create a centre of excellence for brewing and distilling in Ireland that should validate the added value potential of Irish grains for the various processes involved in alcohol production. It should provide the necessary support structures for the stakeholders involved, including education, agronomy and production, all the way through to the finished premium products. Last year saw the original concept brought to reality with a joint Teagasc-SETU strategy implemented, including the development of essential courses to provide practical and quality-control training for the sector. Hardware development is now underway with the fabrication of column still capacity. Further developments this year will include full scale analytical laboratory facilities and a sensory room for industry use. With the ongoing expansion in distillery numbers across the country, technical support is essential. To that end, the NCBD will be able to provide onsite technical support for start-ups as well as existing businesses.

Non-alcoholic options

There is an additional research focus with an emphasis on investigating the benefits of fermented non-alcoholic beer on human health as well as on optimising the value of the distilling residues. The latter should, again, increase the premiumisation potential of Irish grain by adding a higher residual value to the crop after the distilling and brewing processes are completed. At the same time, there will be an ongoing focus on expanding the role of Irish grain in the sector and ensuring that Irish grain growers can look forward to higher premiums for their produce. An exploration of heritage barleys to determine their malting potential is also planned.
Of significant importance among that list of research priorities  is the work around non-alcoholic beverages. A report from Diageo last month confirmed the increasing popularity of these drinks, with the company that owns the iconic Guinness brand reporting that more than four per cent of the black stuff brewed at the St James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin last year was non-alcoholic. That’s over 50 million pints out of one billion-plus of the creamy heads brewed by Diageo in 2023. Diageo also reported that the 0.0 option among tipplers is gaining momentum with an expectation that consumer preference for the non-alcoholic option will continue to grow strongly in the years ahead. To that end, Diageo is investing €25m in new brewing facilities to deliver a 300 per cent increase in production capacity of the sober beverage. Back on tillage farms, growers may hope that a substantial proportion of the grain required for this increased production of Guinness 0.0 may be filled with Irish-grown grain.
Zero-alcohol lager consumption is also in the ascendancy, with the taste and texture now virtually indecipherable from its alcohol-laden brethren. It’s not only in brewing that the increasing popularity of non-alcoholic drinks is being experienced. Non-alcoholic gin is also increasingly popular and with the huge surge in production, not only of Irish whiskey distilleries but also of gin and vodka distilling, the future for premium priced Irish grains suitable for use in these drinks looks increasingly positive.