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The man who has finally made baked beans British

Lincolnshire farmer Andrew Ward (left) with Professor Eric Holub and Justin Burton
Lincolnshire farmer Andrew Ward (left) with Professor Eric Holub and Justin Burton, who worked together to produce the first ever commercial crop of British-grown baked beans - University of Warwick / SWNS

They are as quintessentially British as scones or shepherd’s pie. So, it may come as a surprise that every single baked bean in the two million tins consumed each day in the UK has been imported from the US, Canada, Ethiopia or China. But not for much longer: behold, the first baked beans grown on home soil.

Lincolnshire farmer Andrew Ward, who has grown and harvested the UK’s first crop of a new bean variety, has had a lifelong love affair with beans on toast. “Right from my childhood,” he says. “When I was at boarding school, the food was appalling. What I used to do was get some tins of beans with sausages and I used to heat the tin up in the kettle. Another favourite of mine was to get a bag of crisps, smash them to smithereens in the bag, and have baked beans and crisps on toast.”

Fast-forward roughly 40 years and Ward, 52, who took over the family business from his father, jumped at the chance to be Britain’s first baked-bean farmer in partnership with researchers at the University of Warwick and the agricultural company Agrii. Ward sees the fact that this British staple is grown overseas as a vital food security issue. “Obviously that’s why I wanted to get involved in growing, because you clearly can’t carry on just importing everything and be happy with our self-sufficiency dropping.”

Far more than simply one component of a fry-up, baked beans are rich in protein and fibre and have a small carbon footprint – some have even gone so far as to suggest they could be a superfood.

But the shorter British growing season and colder weather means the haricot beans in a typical tin on supermarket shelves can’t be grown on home soil. However, 12 years ago, scientists from the University of Warwick started work on growing the first truly British baked beans. They bred thousands of varieties and then selected three that are designed to thrive in our cooler, damper climate and could be farmed commercially. The three are called Capulet (similar to other baked beans – named after Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), Godiva (a blonde-coloured kidney bean) and Olivia (a black bean named after the Bard’s Twelfth Night). Twelve years is an awfully long time to wait for a jacket potato filling or toast topping.

The three selected British bean varieties are called Capulet, Godiva and Olivia
The three selected British bean varieties are called Capulet, Godiva and Olivia

“It has taken years because of the time it takes for each generation to grow… it’s taken six years to actually get the variety to the stage where it can be registered,” says prof Eric Holub of the University of Warwick. “And then it’s a case of increasing enough seed to be able to grow across two hectares. You need to go through a couple of years of producing more seed before you can start growing a crop.”

The beans can be planted in May and harvested in September to fit this country’s shorter growing season, and are resilient enough to cope with the vagaries of our weather. They can be drilled and harvested with equipment that British farmers already have access to.

“When we talk about haricot beans, we’re actually talking about something called a navy bean, which is a particular type of common bean,” says Holub. The new variety of Capulet bean that has been successfully trialled on Ward’s farm was bred from a common North American navy bean and a Peruvian bean from South America. “Through that cross, we’ve got a variety that’s now able to work with the sunshine and the heat in a British summer,” he adds.

Eric Holub in bean field
The new variety of Capulet bean was bred from a common North American navy bean and a Peruvian bean from South America

Though ultimately successful, the first British baked bean growing season has not been without its challenges. Ward, a second-generation farmer, has 16,000 acres of wheat, barley, oats and oilseed rape in Leadenham, Lincolnshire, and admits the relatively challenging new Capulet bean crop “won’t be for everybody… it will require a certain amount of attention to detail.

“Everyone thinks farmers are always moaning about the weather,” he says, but it did throw up a few challenges this year. “They need a little bit of moisture when they’re planted, like every crop. They need lovely sunny weather for June and July, with a bit of rain in between, and a good harvesting period at the end of August and September,” says Ward. “Everything we wanted, we didn’t get – we got the opposite this year. But we have succeeded.” Most of this year’s harvest will be funnelled back into next year’s planting to increase future yields.

While they may now be a Sunday night suppertime staple – Heinz claims that nearly a quarter of Britons eat beans two or three times a week – they were once an exotic treat. Arriving in the UK from the United States in 1886, baked beans were initially sold in Fortnum & Mason as an imported luxury. To see the first beans tinned on home soil signals a bright future for one of Britain’s favourite foods.

The beans being canned
The beans being canned - University of Warwick / SWNS

Princes, the company that manufactures Branston Baked Beans (which the Telegraph’s own thrifty buys expert, Xanthe Clay, says taste better than the classic Heinz), canned the first crop of Capulet beans in a signature tomato sauce in its Lincolnshire factory.

But on to the most important question: how do they taste? Well, largely indistinguishable from any other tin of beans, which is good news. “The flavour is all in the sauce and the spice,” says Holub. “Capulet is the same.”

Taste-testers on the streets of Lincoln were more enthusiastic. “There wasn’t anybody who said, ‘They were awful, I wouldn’t buy those,’” says Ward. “A lot of people said, ‘Well, they’re just like baked beans,’ which is great.” However, some also said they actually prefer them to “normal” baked beans.

They are due to reach shelves – first as whole, dried beans – in select zero-waste stores before the end of this year, and will likely be available in tins towards the end of 2026. It’s a baked bean breakthrough.

Recipes to celebrate baked beans

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