American design made Louth malt kiln unique

TO modern eyes the malt kiln's mass seems strangely close to the centre of Louth.

When building began in 1949, the site was on the industrial edge of the town, beside the railway station and its coalyard.

There was no Fairfield industrial estate, North Holme housing or Cordeaux school. The north of the town stopped at High Holme Road.

The old maltings, built around 1870 and destroyed by German bombs in 1940, had stood opposite a pea canning factory which after it burned down was replaced by the now empty Linpac factory.

If you were going to build an industrial monster this was the place. Anyway, as John Hardy pointed out, it had to be where its predecessor stood to qualify for war compensation.

Almost since it went up, the malt kiln has always been seen a blot on the landscape but during the war, maltings production had been halved and people wanted it back to normal.

Owners Gilstrap Earp, part of Associated British Maltsters hired contractor Mitchells of Grimsby to build the American design, a maltings like none seen in Europe before let alone Louth.

But following the American architect's design, Mitchells and the men they employed did a good job.

"It is very well built. I have seen similar maltings built in the sixties where they have got a bit sloppy but here there was great attention to detail and getting everything right,"John said.

It took two years to finish the operation but it would have been quicker without post-war cement rationing. They built the skyscraping 120ft high barley and malt store then says, John, there was an interruption until limited supplies could be squared with the operation's huge appetite for cement.

As they neared completion of the tower, fire and ambulance crews had to rescue a workman who fell from scaffolding onto the roof. They strapped him to a stretcher and lowered him vertically on ropes down the inside of the building.

The interior was an extraordinary honeycomb of 96 eight foot square, 90ft high storage chambers for barley and malt. "That's why you couldn't demolish it by blasting. It is so strong it would fall like a huge box," John said.

The lower long production section was finished for malting to start in 1952. The finished building was substantially bigger than Gilstrap Earp had originally envisaged, due to a transatlantic misunderstanding. American and British ideas of the trade measure for malt, "a quarter", are different.

The American designer worked on the figures he was used to which he gave the firm so much extra capacity that it was able to increase production from 9385 tonnes in 1953 to nearly 14000 in 1960 without adding to the building.

Some of the men who built the maltings went to work in it when production started. New men were needed because they were entering a brave new mechanised world bearing no resemblance to the old maltings.

A 20 tonne lorry could be unloaded in 20 minutes. Bucket and chain elevators carried the barley up to be emptied into the storage chambers.

Hoppers poured barley onto conveyor belts which carried it to four 40-tonne capacity steeping tanks for soaking. Then it would be moved to germinating boxes which were 60ft long 17 ft wide and three ft deep with perforated floors.

A fine spray system maintained 100pc humidity and the temperature was kept at 60F 365 days a year 24-hours a day.

For four days the barley was turned automatically by revolving steel helixes in the sides of the boxes to promote germination, the rootlet growth turning starch into sugar which the brewer wants.

The oil-fired kilns operated at two temperature levels, the lower for lager and the higher for traditional bitters and mild.

One unfortunate operator once loaded a kiln with its floor open, dropping 25 wet tonnes which smashed through a roof on to dry malt which took a long time to separate.

That was a minor mishap compared with a fire in the barley and malt store which caused 250,000 worth of damage in 1974. The vigilance of foreman Tom Benson who lived opposite prevented a worse disaster.

More silos were added in 1972 and computerisation was introduced in the 1980's, ending the night shift. If there was a problem an alarm rang in the Manchester office which called out a local man to attend to it.

Dalgety's had taken over ABM in 1972 but Paul's Malt became the new owners in 1987. Their plans to expand production by building three huge new silos were refused in 1989 by East Lindsey District Council and on appeal, following bitter opposition from the Civic Trust and conservation minded councillors.

Louth was producing 30,000 tonnes a year. In the late 1990s Paul's invested 30m in a new plant at Bury St Edmunds which increased introduction by 100,000 tonnes.

Louth's fate was sealed.

The germinating boxes.