Maris Otter (Barley) is a traditional, two-row, low-protein, winter barley variety with deep roots in English brewing. It is today considered the keystone malt for authentic British ale flavors. It was first bred in 1966 by Dr G. D. H. Bell, the director of the British Plant Breeding Institute (PBI), which was then located on Maris Lane, in Trumpington, England. (In 1990, the PBI moved to a nearby location.) Maris Otter was a cross between two older PBI varieties, Proctor and Pioneer. Whereas Pioneer, bred in 1943, was Britain’s first commercial winter-hardy malting barley, Procter is a spring barley that was bred in 1952 as a cross between Kenia, a Danish variety, and Plumage Archer, an indigenous English spring variety that was first bred at Warminster Maltings in 1905.
Maris Otter is considered a very “malty-tasting” pale base malt, which has made it a favorite among traditional cask ale brewers for decades. Using Maris Otter, brewers are able to create beers of relatively low gravity and alcoholic strength, such as “ordinary” bitters, while retaining a genuinely malty flavor profile. After its introduction, Maris Otter quickly became popular with brewers because of its low nitrogen content, excellent malting homogeneity, and good enzymatic strength, which makes it easy to malt and mash.
Agronomically, Maris Otter thrives particularly well in the maritime climate of the British Isles, but less so in continental climates, which is why it has never become a significant barley crop in such brewing barley-growing powerhouses as Australia, Ukraine, Russia, Germany, France, and the prairies of the United States and Canada. In addition, although a great—albeit high-priced—performer in the malt and brewhouses, farmers consider it an only moderate, even poor, performer in terms of disease resistance and yield. For these reasons, it is no longer listed as recommended by such official bodies as the National Institute of Agricultural Botany of the United Kingdom. For all practical purposes, it has largely been replaced by such varieties as Halcyon.
In the early 1990s, Maris Otter plantings had virtually ceased. This is when a consortium of Maris Otter loyalists composed of farmers and maltsters were able to acquire the exclusive rights to Maris Otter seeds. By 2002, two companies, H. Banham Ltd. of Norfolk and Robin Appel Ltd. of Wiltshire, purchased Maris Otter as a “brand” and continued to make it commercially available to specialty brewers. Since then, the international demand for Maris Otter has rebounded and remained sufficiently strong to keep small plantings of it viable. Maris Otter has become an “heirloom” variety malt prized by many craft brewers in the UK and the United States. Some of the production is still floor malted, a process that intensifies this barley’s natural round, biscuity flavors.