|one of our ancient ales|
It’s traditional to have an alcoholic drink at a celebration or a feast. There’s a wide variety to choose from today. But what did they drink 4500 years ago at feasts at Durrington Walls and other Neolithic ceremonial centres, for example, the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney? Were they drinking alcohol? If so, what were the ingredients? How was it made? We've been investigating the archaeological evidence from a practical, scientific and technological perspective for over twenty years.
What sugars were available 4500 years ago in Neolithic Britain and Ireland?
Grain is usually associated with making flour, bread or porridge. However, it can also be malted. The malting process (partial germination) transforms the grain. When grains begin to germinate, enzymes are released that convert grain starch into sugar. It’s possible to make plenty of malt sugars by mixing crushed malt with water, then heating it gently. The enzymes reactivate in the mash tun and complete the conversion of starch into sugar. This is the saccharification and it’s the basis for all ales and beers made from the grain. It results in a ‘sweet mash’ of grain and liquid.
Separate the liquid from the mash and you have what brewers today call ‘spent grain’ and ‘wort’, the sweet liquid that’s fermented into ale or beer. The ale is consumed. Spent grain is fed to pigs and cattle, so doesn’t survive in the archaeological record. Nevertheless, although the evidence for malting, mashing and fermentation is rare, some indications that the brewing process took place in the Neolithic can be found in the archaeological record.
|an example of a pig jaw from Durrington Walls with teeth caries (the hole at the base of the tooth). © Stonehenge Riverside Project|
Spent grain as animal fodder.
The discovery of pigs’ teeth with caries (signs of decay) at Durrington Walls is very interesting. They indicate that these pigs were fed something sweet to fatten them up. The official explanation was that the pigs were fed honey. This is not a reasonable explanation. Honey is only mildly cariogenic. You would have to feed the pigs prodigious quantities of honey to produce caries. It is unlikely that honey was available in large quantities. Such a valuable food resource would not have been fed to the pigs. It would have been made into mead. Spent grain from the mash tun is still slightly sweet and it is highly nutritious, a far more likely source of animal fodder than honey.
|Spent grain left over in the mash tun after the process of washing all the sugars out in the brewing process. © Merryn Dineley|
Carbonised grain is not biodegradable. It can survive on an archaeological site for thousands of years. This charred or burnt grain, often damaged and with missing embryos, is found throughout the British Isles at excavations of rectangular timber buildings dated to the Neolithic. The condition of the carbonised grain indicates the sort of processing involved. When grain has partly germinated, the embryo of the grain is missing; this is the part of the grain where growth begins.
In the late 1970s, thousands of carbonised grains were found during excavations at Balbridie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. This was the site of a large rectangular timber building dating from the early Neolithic period. What kind of grain processing happened here? When some of the grains were examined by the author, some were missing their embryos. This could mean that these first farmers knew how to make malt, the fundamental ingredient for ale and beer, and they also knew how to make fermentable sugars from the grain by ‘mashing in’.
Another possible grain barn or malt house has been excavated at Hallbreck Farm on Wyre, Orkney. Thousands of carbonised grains were found in the remains of an early Neolithic timber building with stone footings. It had a well repaired clay floor, perfect for malting. Both these buildings, Balbridie and Wyre, were destroyed by fire. This is a common fate for malt barns, when drying the malt goes wrong and the fire gets out of control.
Carbonised naked barley grains were discovered in Structure 14 at the Ness of Brodgar. I was most intrigued to see that some of them appear to have missing embryos. Could this be a sign of malting? If so then there is some evidence for ale at the Ness of Brodgar. This collection of carbonised grain is certainly worth much further investigation.
|Carbonised naked barley grains from the Ness of Brodgar with missing embryos, an indicator that this is malt. Photo from From As It Stands, 2021, Card et al p178 |
Ceramic pots are needed for ‘mashing in’ and also for fermentation. Thousands of sherds of Grooved Ware – a flat-bottomed, bucket-shaped pottery – were found at Durrington Walls. Some of the pots had a volume of up to eight gallons, perfect as fermentation vessels.
All this evidence makes it possible that the builders and users of Stonehenge and other Neolithic ceremonial sites in the British Isles knew how to make malt and ale from grain. The transformation of grain into ale can easily be described as a ritual activity. You have to know what to do with the grain and how to do it, providing the right conditions for success at each stage of the brewing process.
What did Neolithic ale taste like? It was probably similar to traditional farmhouse ales that are still made today, but without the hops. Traditional brewing plants and herbs, for example meadowsweet, yarrow, heather, juniper or bog myrtle, could have been used as flavourings and preservatives.
Grain was probably a high-status crop, grown for making malt and ale. It was not just for flour, bread, porridge or gruel as is often assumed in much of the academic literature.