NOM looks back: Grab a beer somewhere in the world and drink a little pride from Eemshaven

Two shiny new towers were commissioned last year. Holland Malt thus doubled its production capacity at Eemshaven. Extraordinary, because not so long ago bankruptcy of the malting company was near.

NOM looks back: How are the companies NOM has worked with in the past actually doing? In this column, together with entrepreneurs, we look back at developments between then and now.

'When we show customers around here, you can see the admiration. This is an ultra-modern environment, state of the art,' says Willem Swinkels. He is CFO of Holland Malt, which has two malting plants in the Netherlands. One in Lieshout, and a larger one in Eemshaven. 'We applied the latest techniques during construction. Sustainability and efficiency are leading. Yes, and the fact that we use so much stainless steel, that's just also beautiful and very hygienic.'

A tour of the 55-meter-high building is nothing short of impressive. The figures are to dazzle. This year, some 280,000 tons of malt will be produced at Eemshaven for the international beer market, double that of a few years ago. 'We have ambitions, actually want even more,' says Swinkels. 'If conditions here get even better, we will undoubtedly expand further in the near future.'

Choice falls on Eemshaven

Holland Malt settled in Eemshaven in 2003, at a time when the landscape there looked very different. The power plants were not yet there, the high degree of industrialization was not yet an issue. Nevertheless, the family business chose this location. And it did not do so overnight. From NOM, Wim A,B. was closely involved in that process. 'For us, the arrival of Holland Malt was spectacular, the beginning of the revival of Eemshaven.'

'I remember we had quite a bit of competition, from home and abroad. What you do then is create a good feeling, confidence that the Eemshaven is the best choice. Besides, of course, continuing to hammer home the major advantages. The deep sea port, the regional involvement, the positive role of Groningen Seaports, the presence of energy and also the clean air. The fact that Agrifirm, as an important supplier, is primarily active in the North helped enormously. And so did our funding.

Top seven in the world

Apparently, the place is so well liked that in recent years a great deal was invested in the malting plant. Plant manager Marco van Dun: 'It has increased our efficiency considerably. New techniques allowed us to further automate in the new building. For example, we no longer need people spending hours cleaning the soaking tubs. That is now done fully automatically. The system of multiple sourcing of the barley and blending from our silo complex enables us to supply the blend of malts desired by the customer at any time. That makes us flexible. Holland Malt

That all fits into the company's growth ambition in a difficult market. Swinkels: 'The margins are small. We have to rely on high efficiency and the best quality. That is going very well now. From the Eemshaven our malt goes all over the world.If we leave China, which primarily serves its domestic market, out of the equation, we are in the top seven largest malting companies worldwide. If you drink a beer anywhere on earth, the chances are considerable that you will consume our product.'

Bankruptcy very close

Now things are going very well, but how different it was in the beginning. Teething problems with the plant's technology proved intractable. Swinkels: "We had a great plan on paper. The entire floor would rotate around an axis to optimize the germination process. In practice, we continually ran into technical difficulties.'

With major consequences. The promised malt could not be delivered to customers. Costs rose, revenues fell behind. 'Everything was against us. The world also ended up in a small crisis which reduced demand. It was really touch and go whether we would make it. In 2007 we were very close to bankruptcy. It is because of a good reorganization that we survived. We went into survival mode and slowly but surely we were able to increase quality and efficiency. It is only since 2014, 2015 that we are really making leaps and bounds and the malting plant is running well.'

So good, in fact, that plans for doubling capacity were on the table. 'For two years we tested in the market whether the demand was big enough. The answer is yes. That also has to do with developments in the world. The population is growing, the demand for beer is rising slowly. Important is the development of specialty beers, which usually contain more malt. The growth in that helps us. So yes, the timing of the expansion fell perfectly, we can put our extra supply directly on the market.'

Cashing in on opportunities at Eemshaven now.

When in Eemshaven the next expansion will become a reality is the question. Swinkels: 'Quite frankly, I had hoped and expected that the infrastructure here would already be better. I think a container terminal should be built really quickly. We still have to ship our containers via Westerbroek. This is undesirable in all respects. For our cost structure, and because of the sustainability drive.'

'By extension, work should be done quickly on a heat network. We use a lot of hot air for the malting process, for which we use natural gas. While a little further on I see the warm air from the power plants being blown straight into the air. An exchange is obvious, but costly. It would be good if NOM could play a role in this, perhaps attract subsidies. Because for us as a company, these are the themes of the future: logistics and energy. If that can be done a little better, then we will continue to grow here. Eemshaven has a lot going for it, the opportunities are great. Let's make the most of them.

Malting, how is that actually done?

To make malt - one of the ingredients of beer - first of all, barley is needed. At Holland Malt, that is brought in by sea from abroad and by trucks from nearby inland areas. First, the barley grains are cleaned, then soaked in water for one day while the barley mixture is aerated. The germination process thus starts slowly. Then the grains need a warm, moist, light environment to continue germinating. After five days, the germination process is complete after which the germinated grains go to the drying room, where the germination process stops and the moisture content is reduced. And so barley is turned into malt and can be sent packaged to breweries around the world.