Thursday 9 May 2013

once upon a time ...

Once upon a time in the back garden, I started to do some archaeological grain processing experiments. It was the summer of 1995. I'd just finished an archaeology degree. Now I was enrolled on a master's degree course at Manchester University and I was beginning my investigations into how people may have made the ale in prehistory. 

In my final year as an undergraduate, I had chosen the British Neolithic and Bronze Age as my specialist subject. We were told that, in Bronze Age Britain- Beakers were for Beer! Warriors buried with wrist guards and bows and arrows and fine beaker pots for their ale! It got a laugh from the class, as any mention of beer and brewing seems to do. I'm still not sure why - but that was when I first began to wonder. "OK. So, how did they make it?" 

Being married to a craft brewer, I was used to living in a brew house. The sacks of crushed malt. The delicious aroma of the mash. The rituals. The water and wort spilled on the kitchen floor. Steam emanating from the out house door as he mashed the malt and boiled the wort. We lived in a big, old Victorian house and the dining room was where the beer was fermented. We had a cellar to keep it in. He would bring a sack of crushed malt in through the front door and transform it into beer. It was very good beer. It was a fairly simple process.

I spent months hunting around the John Rylands Library for any reference, anything at all, in the rows of archaeology books about prehistoric Britain for anything to do with
malting floor
etc etc etc ???

I found nothing about how ale was made. Anywhere. There's my research topic, I thought.
How did they make the ale in Bronze Age Britain? All the paper work was done, I was accepted as a Post Graduate student and I got a desk - nothing else, just a desk. In the late 1990s there were just a handful of computers in the Archaeology & Art History Department. None at all in the John Rylands University Library. But plenty of books, journals and excavation reports. So I applied myself to reading excavation reports and to understanding how ale is made. 

With three young children, it was always going to take a while. It would always be part time.

 Within a couple of months, reading about the organic residues described in excavation reports that had been identified on both Bronze Age Beakers and Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery, I realised that brewing might perhaps be a neolithic thing ... but more of that  particular excitement another time. 

To make ale from the grain, you must transform it into sugars. Sugar ferments into alcohol, we all know that. The transformation of cereal into alcohol is done by heating up crushed malt with water to make a wort. That is what craft brewers do. But I had to use equipment that would have been available to a Bronze Age or a Neolithic brewer.

So, all I needed was some crushed malt, an earthenware bowl and a fire. I took some of the household brewing ingredient - Maris Otter Pale Crushed Malt. I went to the local garden centre and bought an earthenware bowl. The bowl was heated, and sealed with beeswax. 

Making a small hearth and a fire, I put some crushed pale malt into the bowl and let it gently heat up on the warm ashes. At first the mixture was starchy and white. Here's a photo:

starting the first mash - crushed pale malt, water, warm ashes

After about half an hour, it began to turn golden brown and there was that familiar aroma of the mash. The liquid in the bowl began to taste sweet. I was making malt sugars. Then, I mixed up some crushed malt and water into a slightly thicker mixture and put it on the flat stone by the fire. The stone had become quite warm by now. If I sprinkled water on the "barley malt cakes" they began to change colour and become golden brown.Here is a photo:

my first mash in the bowl - my first "barley malt cakes" on a hot stone
This is known, officially, as the saccharification. My craft brewer husband had been telling me, for months, that I had to understand the saccharification before I could understand the brewing process. Now that I had done it for myself, I understood it - at least superficially. 
By doing something, experimentally, for myself, I had learned that:

Malted barley could be easily made into liquid malt sugars using simple equipment.

All that was needed was water, crushed malted grain, the application of gentle heat and a heat proof and watertight container for the mash. 

But it was also possible to make malt sugars on a hot stone by the fire. 

As with any archaeological experiment, it had thrown up many new questions for me to consider. And my investigations into ancient ale were underway. 

Could these be the so called "beer bread" of the Egyptians or the "bappir" of the Sumerians? How far back did this fundamental technology go? What is so special about the malted grain that you could make sugars from it? I had lots and lots to learn yet! 


  1. I'm hooked. Are you going to continue?

  2. Yes - already started on the next post. ;-)

  3. There is an excellent paper on how Celts brewed beer (an entire brewery has apparently been found), although that is Iron Age. You can safely assume some of the techniques were borrowed or updated, since techniques tend to evolve with only some genuinely new inventions. As for the Bronze Age, pots were Sun-baked (go to Stockport Museum and look for the pots found at the Mellor hilltop). This meant no direct heating was possible. You had to heat pebbles and transfer the heat.

    In fact, as beer was not then portable, anything drunk was likely made on-site. Expect the Mellor finds to include beer-making materials not identified as such - the archaeology unit from Manchester involved in the dig was good on reporting and brilliant at identifying even obscure features but lacked the imagination needed to contextualize the entire site and everything therein.

    Since the Celtic brewery used fire pits linked with trenches to smoke the sprouting seeds, but no such feature was specifically found by excavation or GPR, I am going to say that must be an innovation from an earlier design. When did the Irish develop their smouldering fire pit method of cooking?

    The two main pots of Mellor (the one from the settlement and the one from a nearby cairn) are sufficiently preserved to show the fingerprints of the potters - I don't recall if they did a chemical analysis of the interiors, but if they did then you can infer something about the ingredients and preparation method.

    Do NOT forget Werneth Low. The term Low appears frequently in place names and site names where barrows can be found. The Victorians were dumb when it came to preserving archaeological sites, but their records on finds are decent enough. Oh, and the Bishop of Disley was a hobbyist archaeologist in Victorian times. He recorded the barrows he plundered fairly well, so that might yield further insights.

    John Ryland Library is a few shelves of popular books and a vast number of poorly-documented warehouses. They will have what you want, but there is no telling if even the librarians know that.

  4. Mellor? When I lived in Manchester I vaguely knew some of the people who dug there. But that was a long time ago. Has it been published? I have not heard of any archaeological evidence for brewing found there. So more details would be interesting.

    There was an iron age "brewery" found in France and a paper written a couple of years ago.

    My story on the blog begins at the beginning - if you follow up my links in the earlier post (yes, only 2 posts yet) the you can access my papers etc. All downloadable from the site. :-)

    Should I have said - the John Rylands University Library? I loved it! Lots and lots of books! :-)

  5. Morning Merryn. Good article & good luck in your future experiments. I had read up some time ago on some experimental archeology done here in Ireland about brewing & I've hunted down the main links.

    Ha, ha, ha, ha....just reading the links at the bottom of the boys article...& there you are referenced & acknowledged! So I take it you know about this already :>)

  6. Seamus, hello and have you seen their video of the Fulacht Fiadh brewing?

    Excellent stuff. I am doing this blog because I want to share my research. I have decided to start at the beginning of the story and I will eventually get around to telling the story of how I met the guys from the Moore Group ... it was in 2004 at the Beer Conference in Spain.

    I learned all about how to do hot rock mashing from these guys and there will be some photos of their Dublin WAC-6 demonstration in my next blog. Which I am working on.

    You will all have to bear with me as I find, edit, re size and put my copyright thingy on the photos. I am not brilliant with computers. :-)

  7. I am sure you did not mean your statement "The transformation of cereal into alcohol is done by heating up crushed malt with water to make a wort."
    This is most likely one of those shortcut statements to which investigators into the history of brewing, and the effects of its consumption may fall... ;-)
    Still I have thoroughly enjoyed the topic and the ancient history of brewing, how it makes barley, nearly indigestible, into a delightfully consumable product. (I offer the definition of beer as the fermented product of the extract of sprouted, toasted barley. There is PLENTY of biology in that definition!)
    Indeed I have presented this to my students (to THEIR delight) for years. Even more interesting to them (and me) is that the origins of bread may stem from these mind altering early "experiments", when some of the left over mash inadvertently found its way onto the stones surround the fireplace.