The CBH Group's investment in the Intermalt and Interflour facilities near Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam had been a contentious issue in recent years.
But WA graingrowers who toured the facility recently are now reassured.
A tour of the facilities was part of the 2023 Grower Study Tour, visiting supply chains in both Vietnam and Indonesia.
While some farmers on the CBH Study Tour may have been slightly on the fence prior to visiting the two facilities in Vietnam, the two factory visits seemed to have convinced everyone on the tour.
Located next to each other, Interflour and Intermalt have direct access to the Cai Mep deep-sea port - which is an invaluable resource for CBH.
Carnamah grower Noel Heinrich believes the facility was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and something that CBH would never be able to buy again.
"There's a deep water port, there's a flour mill and a malt factory - if we sell it, we will never be able to re-buy it," Mr Heinrich said.
"Whether it develops and continues to produce value, I don't know, but it's something we should hold on to."
Looking at CBH's investments was one of the reasons Jennacubbine grower Jo Smith wanted to go on the tour.
With Asia being Australia's closest markets, she was keen to find out whether there was room for further expansion in the market or if Australia should begin looking further afield.
She said the tour of the facilities changed her perspective on the Intergrain and Interflour investments.
"It has changed my thoughts, I now understand the reasons why CBH invested, now that I've actually seen the facility," Ms Smith said.
"By being directly involved in a malt company we have more of an insight into the requirements of the market.
"If we were just selling wheat to millers from the outside, we wouldn't know what they require or have access to as much of the supply chain as we have on this trip.
"CBH head of accumulations Trevor Lucas said it was a tough investment, but financial returns weren't the sole reason for the purchase.
"There are other things - we are involved, we get to see our customers, we become friends with the other customers and competitors because we have a presence," Mr Lucas said.
"The location of Interflour and Intermalt in Vietnam is a long-term play, with a deep water port, it is a great investment."
Intermalt senior director Rob Wicks believes there is plenty of potential in the market as the company was doing something "groundbreaking" by producing malt near to the customer.
It is the first international capacity malting plant in South East Asia and is able to produce 110,000 million tonnes of malt per year.
A joint venture between CBH and Salim Group, the Intermalt facility opened in 2017 and has been able to use a lot of the labour and administration from the nearby Interflour.
"There were a lot of sceptics when we started this business because it hasn't been done before," Mr Wicks said.
"But thanks to a great operations team and the good barley we are getting, our mission has been possible.
"Our dream is to build a stage two development and double the capacity of the plant."
Mr Wicks said the visit by WA growers showed the staff how passionate growers were about barley and it was a great opportunity for them to see where the product comes from.
"We love Western Australian barley and we want to see more of it," Mr Wicks said.
Established in 2005, the Interflour Group is a leading flour miller in the South East Asian region - with nine flour mills operating in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
It has a total wheat milling capacity of 6320 tonnes per day and is capable of supplying about 1.8 million tonnes of flour per annum to the growing Asian market.
The tour of Intermalt and Interflour's facilities were nothing short of impressive because of the pure scale of the facilities and amount of grain they are able to process.
The group visited the Intermalt germination vessel, which was 1.5 metres deep and could hold 480 tonnes of barley.
Intermalt had four of these vessels, which had a revolver that slowly moved the grain.
"If you don't move the grain, the grain will germinate and latch onto each other until it becomes a solid block," said Intermalt senior director Rob Wicks.
The smell was as if you had placed your head directly into a bread maker and Mr Wicks said the fresh smell meant the barley was germinating well.
The grain from the germination vessel is then delivered to a kiln, which is about 38m in diameter and usually less than 1m in depth.
After the germinated barley is finished in the kiln, it is sent to the analysis bin, and a sample of beer is created from the end product.
"We basically make little batches of beer," Mr Wicks said.
"We grade the malt, try it and see if there's much glucan left in the cell walls.
"If there is a high level of glucan, that means Intermalt hasn't done a good enough job in the malting process and they have to edit parts of their process."
CBH Group Growers Advisory Council member and Harrismith grower Craig Doney said he had never been through a malting facility before, so the tour "really opened" his eyes.
While Interflour's facility wasn't anywhere near as automated as other flour factories, such as Bogasari in Jakarta, the low labour cost in Vietnam meant that it was okay to have more staff.
There were staff whose job was to ensure the top of the bags were stitched properly, and several staff that helped load the trucks.
Mr Wicks said when he first began the role at Intermalt, there were five people who would sit by the fridge as fridge mechanics.
Thinking this was too many, he reallocated them to different jobs.
He said within a day, he encountered problems with engines and fridges overheating, as they were all manually temperature controlled.
He came to the quick realisation that every staff member was valuable and it was worth paying to have extra staff on board.
Interflour, along with producing flour, has a laboratory that tested the flour product for quality control.
Tests included the falling numbers test, whiteness test and dough flexibility.
Elasticity was an important indicator for customers that wanted to create noodles with the flour.
After this process was completed, Interflour would produce a certificate of analysis which was sent to all customers.
WA's quick adoption of Maximus barley could prove to be an issue in the future, as overseas brewers drag their feet to approve the variety for their processes.
With about 70 per cent of Australia growing Maximus, and companies such as Heineken settling requirements that they can only malt 60pc of any one variety, Mr Wicks said an "obvious issue" has arisen.
Heineken, along with other brewers around the world, are yet to approve Maximus barley as an acceptable variety to use as malt.
With Heineken being a European based company, they tend to prioritise new varieties that come from Europe rather than Australia.
Mr Wicks said he had a slight "chip on his shoulder" with how long it had taken for the Maximus approval process.
Initially, Intermalt sourced malt barley from Argentina.
But, since the establishment of the Planet variety in WA, Intermalt has begun buying from Australia.
He said he got a lot of their supply from the Albany and Kwinana zones.
"Planet barley was created in Europe, so the approval process for barley can be very Eurocentric," Mr Wicks said.
InterGrain's latest offering - Neo - has maltsters excited, with long-time friend of Mr Wicks, David Moody, releasing the variety earlier this year.
"If Mr Moody says it is good, I believe his data," Mr Wicks said.
But Mr Wicks seemed a little wary that by the time Maximus barely was approved, growers might have already started growing Neo.
Intermalt preferred to deal with CBH for its malt barley because it is a co-operative, which he said gave him more confidence in trading.
"As a co-operative, CBH seems to have a lot more co-ordination in their operation," Mr Wicks said.
"I see the value as a buyer from CBH."
Intermalt commercial manager Sophie Dang said the partnership with CBH gave the company a great advantage to get Australian barley, which has proven its quality over the years.
Some other countries that Vietnam imports from, including India, have a high degree of rocks and rubbish in their grain.
"Australian barley has proved its quality over the years," Ms Dang said.
"We expect and believe that Australian barley can support us when we expand.
"CBH has a lot of advantages, and the value has been proven - they have very good facilities and processes.
"The quality has been proven, quality to us is very important and we believe in CBH's whole system to maintain quality barley for us so we can produce high quality malt."
Ms Dang said the partnership with CBH also made Intermalt economically competitive.
Frankland grower Noel Keding was concerned about the colour of barley, which he said had cost him a lot of money over the years.
But Mr Wicks said the colour was "not a big deal" to Intermalt, as the colour of the barley did not impact the colour of the malt or beer.
"We connected high colour with weather damage, but it's now been determined that it is not as linked to germination," Mr Wicks said.
"It's not such a big deal unless it is visibly mouldy."
Mr Wicks said it was the biggest and fattest grain that would create the best malt.
Intermalt had some of their best years during COVID-19 and during drought years, as maltsters locked in their grain earlier at a premium to ensure they have supply.
This year is the first time in 40 years that the malt market is down in Vietnam.
There are a range of different factors, including an economic downturn resulting in less disposable income in Vietnam and more rigorous drinking laws being enforced around the country.
While a large majority of malt from Intermalt goes to breweries, about 3pc goes to whisky and a small amount is also used in Milo.
NOTE: Farm Weekly journalist JASMINE PEART travelled with the tour, as a guest of the CBH Group.
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