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