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March 13th, 2017

The Malt Caves

BY Christian Ford

The English city of Nottingham — seat of Robin Hood’s infamous sheriff — was built on  sandstone.  The city’s castle stands on a high outcrop of the stuff which is why it’s now called  Nottingham Castle sandstone.  This silty stone, laid down by a primordial river, is so soft that just about anyone can dig through it.   At the same time, it’s sturdy enough to not collapse, even you don’t know much about digging tunnels.  As you might imagine, this is the perfect recipe for building a city beneath the city.

This was common practice in the pre-industrial era.  A great swath of Northwest Europe is made of sandstone and limestone; the chalk of the White Cliffs of Dover is a variety of limestone and Notre Dame de Paris is carved from it, too.  Even today, the lowermost basements of some of Paris’ most highly regarded restaurants are in fact caves, cut out centuries ago.  The reason this was so common is that it was hugely simpler than assembling building materials and manpower to construct a building.  A person with a pick could, given enough time and determination, create rooms with no view, but a lot of utility.

Nottingham proper is the roof to a warren of caves, nearly 500 of them, most very old and used for a bewildering variety of purposes.  Many were subterranean passages (a queen’s boyfriend was  snatched away from the castle and bundled to his doom through one called Mortimer’s Hole).  Others were storerooms for foods such as grain, meat, fish and wine.  An entire slum existed down here in the Victorian era, and there were industries, too, such as tanneries, with their astonishing stench.  It’s unsurprising to find subterranean breweries, often directly beneath the floor of taverns, but the thing which stands out to me are the malting caves.

Malt Houses were ubiquitous all across Britain, but they were substantial structures, requiring a large and expensive mass of timber or brick and the labor to raise it.  What’s more, traditional malting depended upon using natural ventilation to control temperature and thus the speed of the barley’s germination, which meant that maltsters could only work about five months of the year.  All that added up to make the profession of malting rather rarefied and linguistic “fossils” reinforce that impression.

The original folk term for a person who brews beer is “brewster,” but in spite of how it sounds, the term specifically means a woman.  Women were England’s first brewers and remained that way for centuries.  If that seems surprising, the logic underlaying the tradition can be found in five pages of insight penned by anthropologist Judith Brown.  What she identified in her Note on the Division of Labor by Sex, was that “women’s work” — that is work a society considers essential and which is also the domain of women —  is always compatible with the demands of childcare.  If that makes immediate and intuitive sense to you, then you might want to read Brown just for her recap of absurd theories men have put forth over the decades  Here, surely, is the font of mansplaining.

But regardless, what kinds of work are amenable to the “demands of childcare?”  Brown lists them as tasks not requiring rapt attention, being interruptible, resumable, safe enough for toddling children and which take place relatively close to home.  Thus, cooking, sewing, weaving, spinning and brewing.   Brewsters owned brewing in pre-industrial England because it fit nicely into the realms they already controlled.

The task of malting was interruptible, resumable, didn’t require laser focus and wasn’t going to injure even the most adventurous kidlet, but maltsters were a different creature.  Malting required a big facility that stood unused for much of the year; it was expensive to build and a luxury when it was idle.  Maltsters were well-off individuals who were unquestionably propertied — which is to say, men.

Now we don’t know who built the Nottingham malting caves but it’s interesting to consider how a geological accident changed the rules.  Under the streets, in the sandstone, cleverness and gumption could substitute for capital.   For a more detailed explanation of malting, look here, but the Spark Notes version is that you need a big floor and climate control.  Under Nottingham, the floor space was limited only by ambition and there were no seasons.  The cool, constant temperature never changed, meaning that malting under Nottingham — unlike anywhere else — could be a year-round profession.  The whole process of malting (roasting and all) was taking place underground, and it operated at such a large scale and without interruption, that Nottingham became a center of malt production, even exporting malt to Cheshire in exchange for salt.

Archaeological evidence gives no clue as to whether brewsters were moonlighting as maltsters under Nottingham, but it’s certainly possible.  We know that Nottingham’s brewsters stored their barrels of ale in Brewhouse Yard, a warren of caves tunneled into the foot of the castle’s sandstone foundation.  The work of the maltster fits neatly within Brown’s definition of women’s work, especially if you consider that the malting caves could be reached by staircases that descended directly from taverns where the women worked and raised their children.

I hesitate to romanticize this subterranean world.  Even if the air was thick with the smell of roasting malt, this was unquestionably a shadowy, alien environment.  But I am equally sure that this was one of those spaces which were precious because they were marginal.  Jane Jacobs once wrote that new ideas need old buildings, and what she meant was that only in places which no one really cares about can people make the sorts of social experiments which diverge from the dominant paradigm.

Over a thousand years of cave life never failed to transforms Nottingham into a people’s republic of any kind but, in a way, that only makes it more intriguing.  Over the centuries, the city’s underground twin must have fostered untold numbers of ideas which lived below because they dared not reveal themselves.  And perhaps the greatest evidence of their success is that they left so little evidence in the ledgers of those who ruled above.

Worth checking out:  Video Flythrough of a Malting Cave and a Malting Cave Kiln.

Into Nottingham’s Underside by Lee Haywood
Tiny Nottingham by Hans Splinter
Subterranean Nottingham by Nottingham Cave Survey
Jerusalemem Pub by rozsagab