hist-brewing: chewing grains

Daniel Butler-Ehle dwbutler at mtu.edu
Thu Feb 25 08:18:48 PST 2010

Joanna Bailey <jbmail at isomedia.com>:
> I can imagine a group of people getting ready to harvest 
> grain for storage, setting up a harvest camp perhaps, 
> and starting a batch of ale. If there is a 10-day window 
> for milk stage, there would be plenty of time to get some 
> going for the harvesters to drink.

In my limited experience, green wheat berries are plenty 
soft enough to chew even later than that--right up until 
they've fully developed.  Modern farmers, though, leave 
it in the field until it's fully ripened and the stalk 
has started to die.

As I understand it, in the days before combine harvesters, 
farmers would just wait until "John Barleycorn drooped 
his head" and then "cut him off at the knees" while the 
stalk was still soft enough to cut by hand with sickle or 
scythe.  Then the grain would be gathered into sheafs and 
set out to dry further, because it was still too green to 

These days, the harvesting machines don't care much how 
tough the stalks are, so the grain can be just left on the 
root until it's dry enough for threshing.

Getting the soft, green berries, though, is tougher because 
the husk is not ready to surrender the seed.  Hand-shelling 
it one grain at a time is tedious work, but perhaps no more 
so than spinning or weaving.

> But that would make 'chew-brewing' a seasonal affair, 
> since milk stage only happens once in the growing cycle of grains.

Well, that's the thing, isn't it?  Would be kinda 
disappointing if the neolithic twelve-step program was 
"Twelve moons between drinks".

Soft grain can't be stored. . .nor can fruit juice or 
fruit (well, *maybe* apples. . .I'm not sure what kinds, 
if any, of apples were available in neolithic Europe or 
Middle East; that might have been the period when the 
domestic apple was brought over from Asia).  

Beer, cider, and fermented juice (except, perhaps, palm 
wine) have little or no shelf life (before the inventions 
of high-tech storage devices such as amphorae and casks). 

Without ability to store either the fermented product 
itself or the ingredients to make it, alcohol would be 
only a seasonal offering.  In the words of Margaret Mead 
(paraphrased): "That would royally suck".

However, honey is storage hardy, as is dried malt and 
dried unmalted grain (that could address the dormancy 
concerns brought up earlier).  (I guess you could add 
dried dates and figs in there, too--they have a plenty 
high enough sugar concentration to make some dandy 
buzz-ful ethanol.)

As I see it, the big advantage of harvesting malting 
grain is that you can store it to make beer year-round. 
I suspect that the ancient loaves I mentioned in an 
earlier post was their method of making a "beer kit" 
into a storable form.  (I do not suggest that bread 
was necessarily an offshoot of beer production, just 
that beer did *not* develop from bread.)

Dan Butler-Ehle

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