A taste for beer: Soufflet's new malting plant in Russia

by Emily Wilson
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Russian drinking habits are changing. Younger Russians in particular are forsaking the country’s traditional vodka for beer with a high alcohol content.

Beer consumption in Russia is rising by around 30% a year and has increased by more than 300% since 1995. Still, at 30 litres per head, the consumption rate in Russia is low compared with 130 litres in the Czech Republic — the biggest beer drinkers in the world.

Russia already has 400 breweries, but the huge potential market is opening up opportunities for investments by international maltsters and brewers. Companies such as Interbrew, Carlsberg and South African Breweries have already invested in new production plants in Russia. One of the biggest barriers to development at the moment is the limited domestic supply of barley, malt and hops.

It was the potential for a new and rapidly expanding market for beer that was behind the decision of the international grain and malting company, Groupe Soufflet of France, to build a malting plant in St. Petersburg. Russia currently imports around 500,000 tonnes of malt a year, equivalent to some 70% of total requirements. Soufflet’s new malting plant, which came into full production in December of 2000, will go some way toward meeting the growing demand.

Malteries Soufflet St. Petersburg is believed to be the largest malting plant in Russia, with a production capacity of 105,000 tonnes per year, equivalent to 20% of current imports.

The U.S.$70-million project was undertaken as a joint venture with the Baltika Brewery, which has a 30% shareholding. Soufflet holds the other 70%. Some financial assistance in building the new facility was provided by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Baltika is a relatively young company, having built its brewery at St. Petersburg in 1990. When Baltika decided it wanted to develop its own supplies, Soufflet — the brewery’s biggest supplier — was viewed as the natural partner.

Baltika currently takes about 70% of the new malting plant’s production. The remainder goes to other users.

The St. Petersburg project marks a major expansion of Soufflet’s malting business, which is the second oldest division in the group.

Founded in 1900 as a small grain merchanting business trading in northern France, Soufflet first moved into malting in 1952 with the acquisition of a small plant at Nogent-sur-Seine, where its headquarters are located. By this time the company had decided to extend its activities into grain processing as a means of adding value to its basic business. The move into malting was followed by the formation of an international trading division. In 1978, Soufflet bought its first flour mill.

The next major development was the acquisition in 1994 of Grands Moulins de Pantin, France’s second largest flour milling company, which also had a substantial malting business. This doubled Soufflet’s malting capacity, making it the largest maltster in France.

Initially cautious about investing in Eastern Europe and Russia, Soufflet said changing trade patterns and new trends in consumer tastes have made Russia a much more attractive market in recent years. But it was the turnaround in the Russian economy beginning some five or six years ago which persuaded Soufflet that the time was right to begin investing in grain processing in the former Communist state.

Planning for the project began in 1997 and construction of the plant, which is on Baltika’s site adjacent to the brewery, started in 1998.

An existing silo has been completely remodeled and adapted for use as a malting silo. Administration of the project was handled by Technip, a French engineering company with a subsidiary in St. Petersburg. Technical know-how was provided by Soufflet in collaboration with ERCAI, a French engineering company that has worked with Soufflet on designing its malting plants in France for more than 30 years. All equipment was supplied by Buhler’s subsidiary in Germany.

The plant employs 43 people and operates on three shifts.

Baltika’s existing silo has been modified to store both grain and malt. It has a storage capacity of 24,000 tonnes of barley and 18,000 tonnes of malt. The grain is delivered by wagons to two intake pits, each with a capacity of 175 tonnes per hour.

After pre-cleaning, the barley goes through a combined process of preparation involving further cleaning and screening to prepare for the malting process. The preparation capacity is 40 tonnes per hour. Grain is then stored in four 400-tonne bins.

The malting plant is of the flat-bed type, with daily steeping capacity of 350 tonnes, and is designed for a nine-day process.

During the two-day steeping process, the grain is steeped in six cylindrical 60-tonne vessels, which are equipped to aerate the grain during wet periods and extract carbon dioxide during dry periods. After 20 hours the barley is transferred to a flat-bottomed vessel also equipped for aeration and carbon dioxide extraction. Water may be heated to 20° C to enable the process to operate year-round.

After steeping, the grain is transferred to five germination boxes, located in the germination hall. Each box is equipped with a fan with a capacity of 210,000 cm/hour, fresh-air and recycled-air flaps and an air humidification unit.

At the end of the five-day germination period, the green malt is transferred to two kiln floors located on either side of the central building and held for two days. The kilning floors incorporate two fans each with a capacity of 650,000 cm/hour and heat recovery equipment including air flaps and a steam-powered air heating exchanger.

The entire process is computerized and all equipment in contact with malt is made of stainless steel. Soufflet’s aim in the design was to focus on simplicity, efficiency and hygiene.

At present, most of the barley used in the plant originates from Denmark and France. The specification is the same as for Western Europe — 10% to 11.5% nitrogen, minimum 95% germination and below 14% moisture.

Despite the fact that Russia produces vast quantities of barley, very little is suitable for malting. The small amount that could be used is difficult to identify because of the lack of organization within the grain merchanting trade.

As a result, only 10% of the barley used currently comes from domestic sources, although Russia has the potential to produce good malting barley, particularly in the Orel, Kursk, Voronej and Tambov provinces.

The varieties currently grown in Russia are well behind western varieties in terms of yield and quality characteristics, but could make acceptable malt if handled properly.

Lack of money for essential inputs of seeds, fertilizers, chemicals and oil, and capital investments in harvesting machinery and storage mean that home-produced grain is to a large extent unreliable for malting. At present, foreign investors believe it is too risky to pre-finance barley growing on a large scale because there is no guarantee of quality or quantity of the end product.

Soufflet is trying to build up contacts in the Russian grain trade to improve its system of procurement. The company also has begun providing farmers with western European barley varieties and technical advice.

Soufflet is anxious to encourage production of quality malting barley in Russia as a means of helping in the development of the country’s agriculture, but sees this as a long-term project.

Diane Montague is World Grain’s European correspondent and is based in London. Raymond Brault is technical manager, Malting Division, Groupe Soufflet, Nogent-sur-Seine, France.