February 2nd, 2017
Brewing is the next edifice to fall to the welcome march of “local,” with some craft brewers branching into farming to create a bottled version of farm-to-table. It’s an interesting development, but for some reason it puts me in mind of how we could only have local food after food became un-local in the first place, which of course means that most food was, in a historic sense, local. Brewing was very much a part of that, because beer didn’t travel well. Hops, first employed somewhere around 1000 CE, became part of beer as a preservative. But even with hops, beer didn’t remain fresh for long and moving a weighty liquid was not something to be taken lightly in an era before mechanized bottling and transport.
Consequently, every tavern and inn, and many households, brewed their own beer, and it was typically women’s work, the doing of “brewsters” as opposed to the brewers that dominate today. But a key ingredient remained the province of specialists, namely malt.
Most market towns in the UK were home to malt houses, more typically known as “maltings.” These were the places where the grain was converted to malt, and it was a process requiring considerable skill as well as floor space. Barley was soaked, to begin with, steeping in a waist deep pit. The grain would swell before being drained and transferred to a “couch,” where it would be piled about a foot and a half deep and left for the next two days at it began to germinate and generate heat.
Now, the finesse part of the task began. The maltster (and yes, it’s confusing, because while “brewster” implies a woman, “maltster” implies a man) would spread the waking grains on the malting floor. If you were to look at a malt house from the outside, what you’d see was a long, low building, dominated by big capped structures jutting from the roof — ventilators.
These were essential, because the maltster’s art — and when craft is this exacting it’s reasonable to call it an art — was all about controlling natural processes using only the tool of temperature. The maltster and his assistants would begin the cooling process by shoveling the grain high into the air, letting it fall on the malting floor in a thin shower. Determining air temperature and grain temperature by touch, keeping an firm eye on the wind and the weather, the maltster would adjust the depth of the grain to control its heat, while at the same time keeping it deep enough to fool the grains into sprouting.
After two days, a wonderful malty smell would fill the maltings, a sign that the grain was beginning to sprout roots. Working at night when more cooling was needed, the maltsters would move the malt “bed” (a batch) down the malting floor a bit at a time, turning it and shoveling it into the air as needed, adjusting the depth of the bed with each move. This way, a constant stream of batches would emerge from the couch and begin their two week journey to the far end of the malting floor. At every step, the maltster would test the grain, tasting it and noting its growing sweetness, gauging the increasing delicacy of the kernels.
What happened during this controlled germination and sprouting was that the grains were waking up, releasing enzymes that converted their starches to sugars and their proteins to a form accessible to yeast. This is the chemical transformation that brewing depends upon, but also depends on it not happening overmuch. After roughly fourteen days, just as the swelling stems threaten to shatter their individual seeds, the grain would have reached the end of the floor. Trapdoors were pried open and the grain was shoveled into waiting wheelbarrows, which were trundled to the kiln. This was the last stop in the malt house, where a slow fire stopped the germination and created the desired color of roast.
You wouldn’t be wrong to call this slow food, what with the barley taking a fortnight to move a couple hundred feet and production limited to the cooler months of the year. But it would be very wrong to think of it as slow-witted. Like so many pre-industrial food traditions, malting demonstrates just how remarkably clever people can be when they depend upon their brains instead of turning a switch. Though a modern pneumatic malting “tower” takes up far less square footage and produces more malt over less time, I don’t know that it would be right to call it more “efficient.”
All that speed and output comes at a cost, namely of energy, and pneumatic malt houses were so profligate with their energy use — constantly pumping air through the malt, applying climate control, running conveyor belts and so on — that old fashioned floor malting held a fat share of the business until well into the 20th century. I’d wager that calculating the watts per pound of finished malt would demonstrate that real efficiency came when the engine was human muscle.
And that brings us to the other part of the slow history of malting, transportation, because the way in which the maltings leveraged minimal power into maximal achievement was fully paralleled by how much of it was moved.
It so happened that the corner of England where the hopyards grew and the barley flourished, was a low land cut through by a myriad of shallow, meandering waterways. Generations of anonymous working boats had slowly evolved in this environment until, in the first half of the 19th century, they achieved a kind of zenlike perfection in a 100-foot brute that was never given a formal name, but which has one today — the Thames Sailing Barge.
It is perhaps best to think of the TSB as the commercial truck of its era, tough, burdensome and utterly essential to the trades it served. Capable of carrying everything from bricks to haystacks, it could move enough cargo to fill five semi-trucks and do it all with a crew of no more than three and often two. Sometimes a dog was kept aboard to protect the cargo for when the crew went ashore.
What’s most unusual about the TSB, however, is that it’s best not thought of as a seagoing vessel, but rather as a creature of the land. Using the dense network of rivers, streams and “swatchways,” in conjunction with the strong tides, the sailors of the TSBs leveraged the forces of nature — and sometimes ropes and the strength of their own backs — to wind all the way up creeks that lead deep into the countryside. An unladen TSB could draw as little as two feet, so it was not merely possible, but standard procedure for farms far from the sea and rivers to have a cart track that would end at a creek. At certain times of the year, the TSBs, their masts visible for miles around, would creep up to individual farms to collect the harvest.
Balancing the weight of the load against the height of the tide and source of the wind, they would find their way back to deep water and race to their next destination, as often as not, the dock of a malt house. And, when they had unloaded their raw grain, they would fill their capacious holds with freshly roasted malt, and make their way back to the river that was their highway, leaving nothing behind them but a two broad wakes, one foaming and white in the water, and one on the air, smelling temptingly of roasted malt.
A fine way to make a living, indeed.
The Malting Floor by Julie Watkinson
Spouted Barley by Allagash Brewing
Snape Maltings by Ted & Jen
Thames Sailing Barge via the Mersea Island Museum
Craft Malting by Allagash Brewing
Footsteps of the Maltster by Paul Joseph