Saturday, 10 September 2016

a morning with maltsters, part one


The Orkney Science Festival is held annually. It's always a great week of varied and interesting events, talks, demonstrations and fun. This year there was a Malt and Malting seminar with a special tour of the Maltings at the Highland Park Distillery, Kirkwall. There were only a dozen places available and we were lucky to get tickets. We spent a fascinating morning with malting, brewing and distilling experts. It was all about the malt.

Making the malt for brewing and distilling is exactly the same process. The difference in processing techniques happens after the mash tun. A brewer takes the sweet liquid from the mash tun, calls it "wort" and adds hops or herbs, then ferments it into beer or ale. The distiller takes the sweet liquid, calls it "the wash" ferments it into alcohol and then distils it. The wort and the wash are two names for the same thing, the sweet liquid that is obtained from the mash tun. Every brewer who makes ale or beer from the grain knows what wort is because they work with it. People who have never made an ale or beer from the grain are perhaps a bit confused about what it is.
wort or wash?
Depends if you are a brewer or distiller.
source here
Dr Tim Dolan gave the first talk of the morning, explaining the fundamental aspects of what malt is, the biochemistry of malt, how it is made and a little of the history and development of the industry. His career in the malting and distilling industry goes back 40 years and he now teaches the subject. The other speakers were Marie Stanton, Distillery Manager of the Highland Park. She shared her knowledge of floor malting, then led us on a wonderful tour around the Maltings. The third speaker was Eric Walker, recently retired, a man with a distinguished background in all aspects of the malting, brewing and distilling industries. He talked to us about the prehistory and history of making malt and explained some technical details. They were quite a team and between them they had a huge amount of knowledge and experience of making malt.

"Malting is a process utilised by the Ancients to produce palatable alcoholic beverages: ale and beer"  (Eric Walker)

In previous years there have been talks about brewing and distillation, usually organised by the Institute of Brewing and Distilling. Tim told us that he thought it was about time there was a Science Festival event about malt, the Cinderella subject, because malt is the crucial ingredient for ale, beer and whisky. What is malt? It is grain that has been germinated under controlled conditions, then dried carefully in a kiln. Making malt has been a skill, an art and a craft for a very long time. Over the years I have given a few talks at the Science Festival. I was pleased that Tim remembered me and had been to my presentations on malting in prehistory, neolithic ale, grain barns and my most recent "Where were the Viking Brew Houses?" a couple of years ago.

The advent of the combine harvester in the 1940s transformed the grain harvest. The ancient and traditional way of harvesting grain by hand was extremely hard work, it was a time when the whole community worked together to bring the harvest home. On Orkney, where I live, grain was harvested by hand and stacked in stooks in the field until as recently as the 1950s. In case you don't know what a stook is, I looked online and found this painting by British artist Heywood Hardy (1843-1933). Painted in 1872, it depicts a typical scene of the time. I like the detail of the stook and you can see how they were made. The effort and hard work involved in making them can only be imagined.

 Corn Stooks by Bray Church by Heywood Hardy (1872) see here
This oil painting was done just a few years before Henry Stopes published his book about Malt and Malting, an Historical Scientific and Practical Treatise in 1885. It is now available to read online. Oxford University took the trouble to scan it in, many thanks to them for that. I first read it when I borrowed a copy from a brewing scientist when I began my research. It's such an important book and it is an excellent snapshot of the malting industry in the late 19th Century. Henry Stopes mentions the work of Louis Pasteur, who had recently published his work on Germ Theory which was to make such a huge impact on the brewing industry.

But I digress. Let's get back to the talk about malting.

Tim explained the biochemical processes of germination, with the embryo being the living part of the grain and the endosperm being the starchy food store. Malt, he said, is a living thing. It must be handled and processed carefully and correctly by the maltster. This was a point that was made several times throughout the morning. First, the harvested grain is steeped in water. It's crucial to allow air rests. The steep tank is drained of water at regular intervals. If the grain is left in water without air rests it will drown and this means that it will not begin to germinate.

Thanks to scientific research into grain germination physiology and biochemistry which began in the 1960s, we now know that when grain is  sufficiently wet and aerated, gibberellic acid is released from the embryo and the aleurone cells. This stimulates enzymes which convert the grain starch into sugars, the food source for the plant.

All grains can be malted. Barley is considered to be the best grain for malting but wheat, rye and oats can also be malted. Here's a useful diagram of the internal structure of a malted barley grain.

a malted barley grain more details here

The craft and skill of the maltster lies in getting the grain to start growing, but not too much. This is known as modification and there is some excellent and detailed information about what malt is and how malt is made on the Maltster's Association of Great Britain web site.

The Highland Park has three traditional malting floors where the grain is spread out after steeping. Raking and turning the malt is a crucial part of the process. We were told that this helps to maintain an even temperature and it also prevents rootlets from tangling. On the malting floor the barley begins to germinate. When the maltster sees the root and shoot being about four fifths the length of the grain, it is sufficiently modified and ready to be carefully and gently dried in the kiln. 

Modern techniques of making malt involve the use of Saladin boxes and drums. There are also huge germinating kilning vessels which can make three to five hundred tons of malt at a time. All year round. The quality of the malt can be controlled because it is easy to maintain precise temperatures and levels of moisture. The third speaker of the day, Eric Walker, gave an interesting talk about the industrialisation of malting and I'll write that up later. In the meantime, here's something I wrote about where the malting floors have gone.

Barley is self pollinating. Dr Tim Dolan emphasised this several times, but I wondered why was he making this point so many times? It was because it's so significant in understanding barley breeding. There were not so many varieties of barley in the past as there are today. The science and practice of cross breeding barley began at Warminster Maltings in 1904. This was news to me. Rather than tell you the story myself, here is the account from the Wiltshire Community History web page:

"The most famous name in local malting was that of Dr. Ernest Sloper Beaven, and his reputation is international. He was born in 1857 to a Heytesbury farming family, who moved to Boreham Farm at Warminster in 1868. Beaven said that he began to observe barley closely from 1878 and he became associated with Frank Morgan, Warminster’s leading Maltster. Beaven’s first experiments had been with onions and potatoes but from 1900 he was growing, selecting and crossing barley from seven initial different ‘races’. In 1904 he acquired fields on the Boreham Road for a nursery and in 1914 he launched ‘Beaven’s Plumage Archer’ strain of barley and continued with seed trials for the next 27 years. Beaven could claim that 85% of the total U.K. acreage of barley was grown from the progeny of just four plants, three of which had been selected in the nursery at Warminster between 1900 and 1904."

In the last one hundred years or so, much has been learned about barley and the biochemistry of germination, however, there is still much to be learned. Although some of the mystery and magic of malting has been studied and explained by scientists, some things about barley are little understood.

One of these is latent dormancy. Someone in the group asked about this and the answer was that it is still a bit of a mystery. There is a practical tradition of leaving the grain for a while between harvest and steep, because it will not germinate. This could be about variety, or it could be seasonal. The best thing I can suggest, if you are interested in finding out more about latent dormancy, is to search for the academic and scholarly papers on it. There are quite a few of them out there.

The next talk was about the skills, techniques and practicalities of floor malting and the turn of Marie Stanton, Distillery Manager, an experienced maltster at a number of distilleries. And then there was the tour of the Maltings.

There is only so much detail that one blog post can take, so I shall leave you with a picture of the maltsters hard at work at Highland Park Distillery. I forgot to take my camera to the seminar, but I did take plenty of notes, so I hope this will suffice while I get down to writing part two, while it is fresh in my memory.

maltsters, turning the malt at the Highland Park Distillery with shovels, or shiels.
source here