This was not my first tour of a malting facility. Years ago, when I started my post graduate research into the archaeology of malt, ale and beer I contacted Thomas Fawcett and Sons, Maltsters, in Castleford, West Yorkshire and asked if they could show us round. They were very helpful and friendly. Soon we had been given a personally guided tour of the maltings by James Fawcett himself. Fawcett's make malt for the brewing industry using traditional floor malting techniques as well as having modern Germinating Kilning Vessels. There's a short film on their website where the ancient craft of floor malting can be seen. We'd wanted to see how an industrial maltings worked, having already visited an 18th Century grain barn at the Corrigall Farm Museum, Orkney, with a threshing floor, malting floor and grain drying kiln. Making malt is the same process, whether you are in a grain barn on a farm or at an industrial floor malting. The only difference is the scale of the task.
The tour of the Highland Park Maltings began with the steep tanks. Barley is steeped in water with regular air rests. Air is bubbled through. Steep tanks vary in size, obviously, but the basic principle is to get the barley wet enough and aerated sufficiently to trigger the germination process.
|the steep tank, barley in bubbling water, with regular air rests
Steep tanks emulate a traditional and probably ancient technique. Maltsters in history and prehistory would have put their harvested grain into a porous bag and then left it in a shallow bubbling stream for a few days. This practice would, of course, leave absolutely no archaeological evidence. I was first told about it by an Orcadian farmer, maltster, brewer and crofter, Harry Flett, who was the custodian of the Corrigall Farm Museum.
|a babbling brook, plenty of water and oxygen here
source wikipedia images
I've written about some aspects of my research into neolithic grain processing, grain barns and the "first farmers" in an earlier blog. Many of the neolithic rectangular timber buildings in Britain and Ireland were situated beside or close to streams and rivers. Carbonised barley grains with missing embryos have been discovered at a number of these ancient sites. I think that they are good candidates for grain barns and malt houses five thousand years ago.
The steeped grain is transferred to the malting, or germination, floor. This is where it begins to grow visibly. Conditions have to be right. It's too hot in the summer months for floor malting, however, with the modern GKV systems it's now possible to make malt every day of the year. At an industrial floor maltings there are large amounts of grain to be carefully transferred from one place to another. We were introduced to the malt chariot.
|steeped grain goes into the chariot
|from steep tank to malting floor
According to Distillery Manager Marie Stanton, a malt chariot is a tricky thing to learn how to drive. The maltsters are experts at it, of course. An industrial floor maltings has to deal with large amounts of malt which is couched, then spread out on the floor. The chariot at Highland Park was in use regularly for this purpose. Ambient temperature and weather conditions dictate the depth of the grain bed.
There were several wooden malt shovels, or shiels, leaning up against the wall. They are used to turn the malt. It's a long job and in an industrial maltings like this, team work is crucial. It takes hard work and skill to turn tons of malt on the floor using one of these. On the tour we were told that some maltsters at the Highland Park were ambidextrous, able to turn malt to the right and to the left with ease. Others preferred to just work one way, which seems to be how the owner of this well worn malt shovel worked.
|A 19th Century malt shovel, well worn from use
As well as wooden malt shovels, fish tail rakes are used. These make the job so much easier, follow the link below the photo to find out why. Raking the malt is not just a skill, it's an art.
|A medieval style custom made malt rake, with fish tails, used by Riverbend Malt House
The grave goods that accompanied this young woman were these: a beaker or food vessel, a thumb nail scraper, two flint flakes and, unusually, the shoulder blade of an ox. The beaker or food vessel had organic residues within it. This is another rare find. According to the official site records (HER)
"The contents of the beaker were analysed by Dr Brian Moffat of SHARP who, from a preliminary examination, suggested that it contained: prepared cereal grain, honey, added flowers and fruit (including meadowsweet, bramble & wood sage), and the sap of birch and alder trees."
Similar residues have been found in other bronze age pots and have been identified as the remains of ale. These two things combined, the pot with cereal based residues and an ox shoulder blade, suggest to me that the woman may have been a maker of malt and ale. She had been buried with the necessary equipment. I mentioned this to a couple of people on the tour and they agreed it could be a possibility. The young woman who was buried 3700 years ago is now the subject of a new investigation by archaeologist Dr Maya Hoole. The details are here if you are interested.
|ox shoulder blade from the Achavanich burial, was it used to turn the malt?
source here (this is a screen grab from the Facebook page)
Grain that will not germinate is useless to a maltster. Upon delivery, samples are taken from every batch of grain. Individual grains are selected at random and tested for viability. This can be done by steeping them in a solution of hydrogen peroxide at 0.75% at 18-21 degrees Centigrade. Germinated corns (seeds) are counted after three days. For a working maltings, this takes too long.
A quicker method of checking viability is to cut a grain longitudinally and use tetrazolium chloride which stains the embryo pink. The maltster can get a result in half an hour. There was a very nice little grain cutting machine in the laboratory at Highland Park, used to cut grains in half for testing from every batch of barley. Shame I forgot my camera, but here's a picture of a stained living barley grain from the MAGB website. Pink toed barley, that's what the maltsters call it, if the barley has a pink toe then it's good for making malt.
|white endosperm, pink embryo, it's alive!
|green malt at Highland Park, steaming on the kiln floor as it slowly dries
source: a blog by the whiskyspeller's here
|the twin pagodas of the Highland Park Distillery
|the kiln fire, it's a long way from the malt and there's a metal flue
The craft of the maltster
Food & Drink in Archaeology 4 eds Howard, Bedigan, Jervis & Sykes