Maris Otter is a selection from a cross between the spring malting barley Proctor and the winter barley Pioneer made at the then Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge UK. It was first recommended to growers in 1965 and remained on the recommended list for 24 years until 1988 when it was outclassed in a number of aspects. Brewers liked Maris Otter malt and it dominated malting barley purchases in England in the 1970s and early 1980s. Even after it ceased to be recommended, brewers continued to use it so maltsters continued to buy the variety at levels in excess of 10,000 tonnes per annum. Craft brewers particularly liked Maris Otter malt and the growth in the sector in the USA (now over 11% of all beer sales) has seen demand for Maris Otter malt increase in recent times so that it now represents 15% of all the winter malting barley purchases in the UK by members of the Maltsters Association of Great Britain.
Because Maris Otter was so popular and represented the best winter malting variety in the UK, breeders used it extensively in breeding new varieties. The first truly successful progeny from a Maris Otter cross was Halcyon (also bred at the PBI) , which was soon followed by Pipkin (bred at the then Welsh Plant Breeding Station). Pipkin was notable as it was subsequently found to be a non-producer of epiheterodendrin, an important characteristic for the Scotch Whisky industry, and the only accepted winter malting barley variety so far found to possess this characteristic. Maris Otter features in the pedigrees of all the UK accepted winter malting barley cultivars as can be seen in the pedigree diagram.
We can now use quite detailed genetic fingerprints of barley varieties to determine how many of the genes found in Maris Otter have been transmitted to its malting barley descendants. For instance, its immediate descendants Halcyon and Pipkin carry over 85% of Maris Otter’s genes but that figure has dropped to under 70% for the more recent varieties Cassata and SY Venture. Much of this change is most likely due to genes to improve winter hardiness, disease resistance, and yield with the net result that current winter malting varieties are now more similar to winter feed varieties like Igri and KWS Glacier that share around 65% of Maris Otter’s genes. Interestingly, this is the same proportion that is found in the current leading spring malting variety in the UK – Concerto. We can also use the genetic fingerprints to find which chromosomes contain copies of genes that are not found in neither Pioneer nor Proctor. This shows that most of the replacements have been on chromosomes 2H and 5H with relatively few on 3H and 6H.
Maris Otter is thought to give unique flavour characteristics to beer and it remains to be seen if those characteristics can be isolated from the genes that have been ‘left behind’ in the breeding of modern cultivars.