hist-brewing: ancient brewing

Daniel Butler-Ehle dwbutler at mtu.edu
Wed Feb 17 08:04:25 PST 2010

"Merryn Dineley" <merryn at dineley.com> writes:
> I think this is because few people today understand 
> the malting, mashing, fermentation process. 
> So, what do you brewers think?

I think that folks who don't understand brewing often 
make the invalid assumption that all you need to 
make beer is grain and wild yeast.  ("See these 
pictograms?  They say that if you add bread to 
water, it turns into beer. . .Can I have my grant 
money now?")  

They don't understand that malting is a necessary 
step. (And they assume that anything loaf-shaped 
is bread and that anything coming out of what 
looks like an oven must be either bread or pottery.)

And even if they recognize the need for malting, they 
are often oblivious to the role of mashing.  Countless 
times I have encountered persons who think it is as 
simple as "the grain got wet, then accidentally heated, 
and it became beer".  No, it became barley soup.  
Yeast ferments sugars, not starches.

As Steve Thomas already mentioned, malting is pretty 
simple step, and it is easy to see both how and why 
it may have developed spontaneously in any culture 
that collects a high-nitrogen grain.  (Evenso, just 
why they are collecting such cereal grains in the 
first place, unless for beer, is beyond me.  Grain 
into bread seems an awfully labor-intensive method 
of getting food from plants, even in grasslands.)

That grain softened by soaking is easier to turn into 
something edible than hard grain is pretty obvious. 

Then, even if it was not intentional, sprouting 
surely would have occurred accidentally on occasion.

The increased sweetness imparted by even the 
ambient-temperature malting would be noticeable 
(and probably desirable--but that's wild speculation 
about ancient tastes on my part).

Where the spontaneous development makes, I think, 
its biggest leap is with the innovation of mashing:
harnessing the enzymes in the slightly sweet malted 
grain through gentle heating to convert it into 
a mass of sugary goodness.  

But, like I said, that is a bit more of a leap than 
simply going from softened grain to sprouted grain.  
I'm not convinced that the sweetening effect of 
mashing would be all that recognizable unless performed 
between, say, 55 and 75 C.  Below that range, and the 
mash would surely sour right quick. Above that range, 
and the enzymes might denature before making a noticeable 

Heat-steeping would require. . .well. . .heat and a 
steeping vessel.  That means expending fuel and having 
a large, liquid-tight cooking pot (making a pot in which 
to *heat* liquid is a different challenge than making 
one merely to *hold* liquid).  Possible, I suppose, but 
it's still a stretch.  [And I rather doubt the ancients 
would have just thrown a big Pyrex bowl into the 
microwave oven.] (Out of curiousity. . .how durable are 
calcium oxylate residues? And can they be used to 
distinguish a fermenter from a kettle?)

However, I did some experiments in 2008 to see if the 
results could be achieved by means other than steeping.
I first malted some grain (one batch with barley, one 
wheat, and one rye).  Then, while the malt was still 
green (that is, I had not dried it. . .not much point 
to drying it, since it was going directly into the 
mashing step), I ran each through a food processor 
and then formed the resultant doughy paste into loaves.

The malt loaves then went out into a solar oven (okay, 
it was actually a old automobile sitting in direct 
sunlight out in our hay field).  I ran the experiments 
on hot summer days, and waited until the oven temp was 
about 65 C before placing the malt loaf inside.  Over 
the next three to four hours, I monitored the oven temp 
and the internal loaf temp every thirty minutes--it 
stayed right within my desired mashing range.

The saccharified loaves then went into the refrigerator 
(my plans for later experiments would include baking 
the sweet loaves until a dry crust formed [to inhibit 
surface mold] and then storing them in a towel on the 
kitchen counter until I was ready to use them).  Days 
later, I would use a loaf to make a batch of wort.

Well, the goal to get into mashing temperature range 
via primitive passive solar heating was met, but the 
goal of mashing the green malt was mostly a failure.  
By my calculations, I only managed to convert about 
7-15% of the grain's mass into fermentable sugar (or, 
rather, into soluble solids anyway).  

Each batch came out pretty sour.  My guess is that I 
cultured a lot of lactobacillus in either the malting 
or the mashing. (Tasted pretty good, though.) On the 
last batch, I tried to inhibit that by adding a bit of 
K sulphite (Campden) to the water that I used when 
rinsing/rewetting the germinating grains during the 
malting process, but it did not seem to improve matters.

One of these days, I'll have to look over my notes, 
do some more research, revise and re-do the experiments.  
I should add iodine testing for starch conversion into 
the mashing phase and also monitor my pH.  I'll 
deconstruct my process and do some control experiments 
in parallel, using modern tried-and-true techniques.

Anyway, the inspiration for the project was to see if 
maybe the supposed "loaves of bread" in the ancient 
"beer recipe" might have actually been baked balls of 
pre-saccharified malt mash (or perhaps even unbaked 
balls of green malt).  Well, I have thus far failed to 
produce much evidence to support my hypothesis.  But 
the bread assumption still isn't looking any more 
likely than it was before.

Wine makes itself.  Mead almost does.  Indeed, before 
preservatives and refrigeration, the distinction between 
fruit juice and wine was a blurry one (and one I've 
walked many times).  That the ancients would know that 
there's something "very special" about fermented fluids 
and that sweet fluids ferment seems really obvious to 
me.  I just cannot easily accept that that connection 
would have been lost on them.  Now, the spontaneous 
development of the bow and arrow. . .*that* seems a 
real stretch to me.

Thus, I do not feel that it is much of a leap at all for a 
culture to go from making their grains sweeter to dipping 
their drinking bowls into a vats of frothy refreshment.

Dan Butler-Ehle

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