Sunday 9 August 2020

The land of milk and honey

"O, while you live, tell the truth and shame the devil!"

(Henry IV, Part I Act 3 Scene 1)

This Blog is written by Graham Dineley, and the opinions, ideas and mistakes are entirely my own.

The land flowing with milk and honey is a Biblical phrase used to describe a fertile land.

ארץ זבת חלב ודבש (éretz zavát ẖaláv udvásh)

As I understand this, it is better translated as "The land gushing with goats milk and 'debash'". Debash is not bee's honey but some sort of synthetic sweetness derived from something that grows. It seems to baffle the Biblical scholars. The origin of the word is lost. It is normally interpreted as being made from dates, figs, or even grape juice, for these are the only sources of sweetness that grows that these scholars know of. The term "synthetic sweetness", suggests that thing that is growing is not sweet in itself, but can be processed into sweetness. Liquid malt sugars are a perfect candidate for Debash.



Fertile Crescent. courtesy of wikimedia commons

It is easy to make the assumption that grain processing practises in the Fertile Crescent, the origins of grain agriculture, continue as they always have done. However to do so is to overlook the rise of the Moslem culture in this area. Alcohol production is prohibited under Moslem law. The current indigenous cereal drink, Boza, has a very low alcohol level, around 1%, at which level it is very difficult to get drunk. As a consequence the arts of malting and "mashing in" to make wort is no longer commonplace there.

I propose that "debash" is actually wort. Then that Biblical phrase "land of milk and honey" makes more sense. It is a metaphor for a land fertile for both grazing animals and cereal crops. It tells me that the first farmers of the ancient near east were making malt. They kept caprovids (sheepy goaty things) and grew their cereals primarily to make into malt sugars. This would be about 10,000 years ago when most of Britain and Northern Europe were under ice sheets.

On reconsideration "debash" is more likely to be concentrated wort, much like bee's honey is concentrated flower nectar. There is a modern equivalent of concentrated wort: malt extract. This is a Victorian invention first made by Nestle, when they were experimenting with baby foods in the 19th century. Malt extract is evaporated under a vacuum at a low temperature. This preserves the amylolytic enzymes which convert starches into sugars. If you want to know what "debash" would have tasted like, all you have to do is purchase a jar of malt extract from a whole food shop, or pharmacist. A word of warning, do not get one with added cod liver oil!

At the bottom of Potter's label is the caption "One of Nature's natural sweeteners"

When I talk to people about malt extract, I still find some people confuse malt extract with yeast extract. Both are brown and sticky, but malt extract is sweet like honey and yeast extract is extremely salty. 

Older people might remember their mothers giving them spoonfuls of malt extract when they were children, for the vitamins.

On the left malt extract, on the right yeast extract.

The absence of wort in this middle eastern culture has more consequences than just baffling the scholars. It also baffles the archaeologists, for they know nothing of malting or "mashing in", it is not part of their experience, but as a brewer it is part of mine.

The two pioneering archaeobotanists who first researched cereal processing, Gordon Hillman and Jack Harlan, both did their field work in Moslem countries, so they never saw or experienced the production of malt, "mashing in" and wort production. This is why it has been overlooked by the archaeological comm
unity and is such a mystery to them. As far as I can tell Gordon Hillman(1984) also introduced the concept of "parching the grain" into Archaeology. This is a particularly Arabic practise for nearly ripe grain, and was and is not practised in European agriculture. "Parching the grain" would kill seed corn and also prevent germination for malting.

As I have said in the oven mashing blog: when Merryn first started her research into prehistoric brewing, 25 years ago, she amassed all the scholarly literature she could find on the subject. At that point I had nearly 15 years experience of making beer from the grain. Sufficient successes and failures to have a good idea of what works and what does not.

I found the archaeological literature to be confused and confusing, often contradictory and sometimes downright wrong. It was useless. It had all been written by people who had never made a beer from the grain, and their sources were also from people who had never done it. Being scholarly meant that the scholars and archaeologists believed it, and they still do.

The only archaeologists that I know of, out of more than a handful, that have tried to make a prehistoric beer and succeeded are the Moore Group. They came to Orkney to see us in 2005, and to learn how to make beer. All the other attempters have said that they did not need our advice, for they already had a brewer. They mistook fermenting malt extract with brewing, and all their brews have failed, often spectacularly, because they believed the literature. They seem to think that brewing was somehow different in prehistory, and that it has been steadily refined into the modern product.

The Moore Group archaeologists tasted our wort and said "God, that's sweet. That is nice!". At all of our demonstrations no other archaeologists would ever taste the wort. 

Merryn gave her first paper about malt and ale in the Neolithic in 1998 at the Neolithic Studies Group annual meeting held at the Royal Society in London. We took samples of crushed malt, wort and ale. No one wanted to taste the wort or the ale. During her presentation there was some heckling from a red faced drunken archaeologist at the back. He kept shouting "But the pots aren't big enough!" The last speaker was allowed to run 15 minutes over time so that there was no time for questions. I think this is called filibustering. Here's a review of the papers presented at this meeting. It seems that this reviewer thought that only big breweries can make beer and that it's not possible to brew on a domestic scale as I do. Merryn did not say that Skara Brae was a brewery, only that they had the necessary material culture and facilities to make malt and ale. Merryn did not say that rectangular timber buildings were breweries, only that they were suitable as grain stores and malt barns. It seems to me that when Merryn said malt and ale, they heard brewing and can only imagine huge modern breweries.

At the Neolithic Fair at Skaill House, Orkney, in 1999 we had a table set up like a market stall, with samples of malt, wort and ale. When offered a taste the archaeologists all backed away and said "No thanks!" The fair was part of the Neolithic Orkney conference. We were not accepted to present a paper, however, we were allowed to contribute to chapter 16 of the McDonald Institute Monograph about the conference and the associated fair.

In 2009 we gave a demonstration of Viking style hot rock mashing at the ancient technology event organised by the Orkney Archaeology Society in Harray. Only two Orkney archaeologists turned up. They backed away, looking horrified, and said "No thanks, we've got to go now" when we offered them a taste of the sweet mash. Their loss. We also gave demonstrations of mashing at Skara Brae for Historic Scotland in the reconstructed Hut 7 for four years, between 2008 and 2012. We actually got paid for these. Tourists and visitors were fascinated by the aroma and the taste of the mash. Sadly no archaeologists ever came to see our demonstrations or wanted to talk to us about our work.

When Merryn studied to be an Orkney tour guide, part of the training was at Skara Brae. She was told that "some woman says that they were brewing beer at Skara Brae, but the College has pooh poohed it". We are treated as "nutters" and are made fun of by the Orkney College archaeologists, even though they were the first to hear of our work. At our last visit to the Ness of Brodgar excavations, 2019, Merryn was trying to talk to a professor and I saw some passing archaeologist performing a "monkey dance" behind her back. Again their loss.

So how, when and where did this malting and making sugars happen? This is discussed in the next blog.


  1. If "it's not possible to brew on a domestic scale", what is it that alewives do?

    1. Yes, that's exactly what ale wives did. I agree.

  2. this blog you spend more time complaining about how people do not take you seriously rather than discussing the significance of beer or any of the previous research carried out in the region you are discussing.

    The problem is most of your posts and comments aggressively treat malt as some mysterious product which people have forgotten exists or are unwilling to acknowledge.

    This could have been an interesting post but you present no real evidence and by evidence I do not mean proof. I simply mean providing a broader discussion than 'growing sweet things could be referring to wort'. There was nothing convincing about this post (also boza is made from malt that is why it has a low alcohol percentage).

    I imagine this critique could be attributed to your other posts as well. As you mention previous ideas about Skara Brae and other Scottish sites, the problem is evidence for brewing is the same as evidence for cooking. However cooking requires less steps meaning it is a more logical interpretation. Evidence for beer needs the malt or rather germinated cereal grains. The same critique can be said for the Viking bathhouse paper and the fulacht fiadh (burnt mounds) carried out by the Moore group. Heating water is not hard, rather it is a very basic activity for many different peoples. Brewing beer does not require a lot of equipment and therefore archaeologically there needs to be more evidence provided or more discussion given.

    All this blog post provided was a alternative translation, followed by calling archaeologists ignorant then yourselves correct while pointing out how badly you have been treated. Well I am sorry for how you have been treated, but also you tried to skip steps in academia. You did not gain accountability before making broad, generalised interpretations about a number of different sites.

    1. Dear Anonymous, thanks for your comments. I don't think that I have 'aggressively' pursued my research into malt, malting and beer brewing technologies. I have, however, been persistent, assertive and at times enthusiastic. I submitted my M.Phil thesis 'Barley Malt and Ale in the Neolithic' in 1998. It was published as BAR S1213, by invitation, in 2004. BAR stands for British Archaeological Reports by the way. Between 1998 and 2010 I presented papers at archaeology conferences and published in conference proceedings. Some were peer reviewed. There have been two Journal papers: one for the IBD (Institute for Brewing and Distilling) about the archaeological evidence for malting floors and another on the archaeological evidence for Viking brew houses. It was peer reviewed and published in the EXARC online journal (the experimental archaeology and ancient technology group). There is also a poster, available to view online: Where were the Viking Brewhouses?

      I've had a mixed response to my presentations and papers – some positive but mostly negative. I've been told “you can't go around saying things like that!” and was once told to “shut up and go away, they were drinking sacred river water!” This last comment was made to me by a professor in 2010 as I walked down the hill at Durham University to present a paper at a conference. So I took his advice and went away. I put my thesis and published papers on later that year. More recently I joined Researchgate.

      I would appreciate knowing how this approach to presenting and sharing my research is to 'skip steps in academia' as you have accused me of doing. You tell me that I 'did not gain accountability before making broad, generalised interpretations about a number of different sites.' Can you please elaborate on this? I look forward to your response.

    2. Hello Anonymous.

      It is obvious that you think you know what malt is and how to brew. I bet that you think malt is roasted, toasted sprouted barley, and that one can ferment almost anything into some sort of alcohol, that it is little more skilful than cooking. I can see you have never done it.

      I am a STEMmer, that is, I have a scientific background and it is a different way of thinking to the Arts and Humanities. In Science ideas are moderated by facts and practicalities. The Arts and Humanities are moderated by consensus views and luminaries.

      I was not complaining about our treatment by the academic world; that is how they are. I was merely trying to point out how resistant it can be to new ideas that disagree with the received wisdom and that there is an endemic culture of bullying in British archaeology.

      The Viking Bathhouse research: : is a peer reviewed academic paper. The blog is a personal analysis of the origins of the fallacy. Curl's misinterpretation of Freswick is an honest mistake. His use of "Ruins of the Saga time" to corroborate his Jarlshof excavation is wrong. The problem is that so many have embellished his fallacy that it is embarrassing, e.g. Brough of Birsay.

      My father rose to be a senior lecturer, but he never made it to professor. He upset too many people with his opinions, truthful but not diplomatic e.g. "The font of all wisdom does not reside entirely within the professoriat". He trod on too many toes.

      He told us that the problem with our work was that the academics did not understand it. It was both useless and challenging to them. They could only disregard, deny, discredit or deride it. That is much easier than trying to learn and understand something new, something that disagrees with their received wisdom.

  3. 16 liters of ale fermenting at this very moment next to me, and I'm in the kitchen: isn't that brewing on a domestic scale?

    1. It certainly is. Graham brews between 8 and 10 gallons (imp) at a time.

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  5. Pity "Anonymous" doesn't have the courage to give her/his name …

  6. It is sad that you have been treated in this way, but while I feel angry, I am not surprised. For many years I struggled to explain that some Romano-British "grain dryers" might in fact be maltkilns. Now that seems to be accepted as possible. Vernacular archaeologists insisted for years that there were no malt drying ovens beside the domestic fireplace - they were all described as smoke chambers, and used to smoke bacon, etc. While this may be true in many cases, I pointed out those with circular ledges only to be told they must have had some use for the bacon. (When there were 2 of these ovens on the same fireplace, I was told they must be of different dates, but both for the smoking of bacon) Fortunately now there is grudging acceptance that grain-drying may be the case, but not specifically for malt.

    Part of the problem is the unquestioning acceptance of "what I have been told", rather than looking at the evidence and thinking about what it might mean - which I thought was what archaeology was all about! There is also a denial of the importance of ale/beer. Bread is accepted in a way that it's counterpart is not.

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  8. Thank you for that comment. I agree that part of the problem is the unquestioning acceptance of a luminary's opinion over common sense, i.e. Merryn suggested that the caried pig teeth at Durrington Walls was because they were fed on brewers "spent grain", which was rejected with the comment "They were fed on honey." Honey does not induce caries. Or how about eating 400 cows at a feast ( with no beer) on Orkney on the basis of a pile of bones.
    I prefer to think the marrow bones are left over from a paint factory : .