It’s a curious fact that the expression “pale ale” does not seem to appear in the English language until 1705, in a catalogue of newly published books sold at a shop in Little Britain, a street just off Smithfield. What makes this particularly surprising is that pale-coloured ales had been available for a very long time: many thousands of years, in fact. Indeed, it has to be pretty certain that the first beers we know of, brewed 13,000 years ago in the Middle East, were pale ales.
Excavations between 2004 and 2011 of a burial site at Raquefet (or Raqefet) Cave in Israel, used by the people we call Natufians 13,000 years ago, showed evidence of crushing grains of malted wheat or barley and brewing beer in stone pits dug into the floor of the cave, quite likely as part of funereal feasts.
The Natufians, who were named for the Wadi en-Natuf near the Palestinian town of Shuqba, in the Judaean Mountains, where the first evidence of their culture was uncovered by archaeologists in the 1920s, were a semi-nomadic people whose diet included gazelles, and the grains of wild barley, Hordeum spontaneum, the ancestor of modern brewing barley. This grows throughout the Fertile Crescent, the area in south-west Asia that saw the birth of Western agriculture. Even today, in some parts, wild barley “often occurs in very dense stands in large populations”.
The exploitation of wild barley as a food goes back before modern humanity: studies carried out on the teeth of Neanderthal skeletons from 60,000-plus years ago found in the Shanidar cave, on the edge of the Fertile Crescent, in modern Iraq, suggest they were eating cooked barley grains. Grains were being harvested by the Sea of Galilee, not far from Raquefet cave, by modern humans 23,000 years ago: we know this because of the remains found on the microliths used to make reaping scythes from that period.
Barley grains are hard and not that pleasant to eat, but if you soak them in water, and let them begin to sprout, they become both softer and sweeter, as the enzymes in the barley seed start to turn the starches into the barley into sugar. If you then dry the sprouting barley seeds before they use all their sugar up to grow into new barley plants, you have a product – malt – you can keep, and transform into different foodstuffs – including beer.
How humanity worked out that malt could be turned into beer is something we still don’t know, but you can be pretty sure it wasn’t some kind of accident, because if you start leaving wet grain around, the most likely result is mouldy grain, not anything drinkable. My personal favourite theory at the moment is that the evidence shows Neolithic peoples were exploiting honey, which makes it quite likely they knew diluted honey could undergo a transformation – fermentation – into happy juice. (If you think this is unlikely, the San people in Southern Africa hunt out babobab trees after rainstorms, since they know honey beers make their nests in the hollows of the trees, and after the nests are flooded and the honey diluted, it will turn into natural mead.) Our ancestors were just as intelligent as we are, and they must have noted the similarity between sweet diluted honey and the sweet wort obtained from malted grain. If one ferments, they very probably thought, why not the other, and set about adding fermented honey to sweet wort …
(A huge hat-tip here to Graham Dineley for his suggestion that the Hebrew expression “ארץ זבת חלב ודבש”, which occurs more than 20 times in the Bible, and is usually translated as “land of milk and honey”, is better translated as “land of milk and sweet wort”.)
Anyway, let us not distract ourselves. How did the Natufians dry their malted grain? It’s the Middle East – you don’t need a fire, Just leave it out in the sun. And what colour malt do you get if you dry your malt in the sun? And what colour will the beer be that you make from sun-dried malt? Let’s quote the great Norwegian recorder of traditional brewing practices, Odd Nordland, from 1969:
“The malt was dried on stones in the sun. It was spread out on rugs, or on furs … The sun-dried malt produced a very pale ale.”
So: the Natufians, 13,000 years ago, were brewing (if they were brewing: not everybody agrees that’s what the evidence shows) with pale sun-dried malt a pale ale. So were the Sumerians, ten thousand years later. As Merryn Dinely wrote in 2016:
“The earliest written description of how to make malt and brew beer is the Hymn to Ninkasi, inscribed on a Sumerian clay tablet and dated to around 1800BC … A floor maltster today would recognise the techniques undertaken by those Sumerian maltsters thousands of years ago … Grain was steeped in water, then it was spread out on a floor and finally the malt was dried in the sun.” (My emphasis)
A slightly more sophisticated method of drying malt looks to have developed by around 7,000 years ago. At Jarmo, a Neolithic village in the Zagros mountains, in modern-day Iraq, occupied around 5000BC, structures described as “baked in place basins”, ovoid depressions with burnished clay rims, have been found by archaeologists. The suggestion is that a fire was lit on the surface, then cleared away once the clay was hot enough to dry the malt.
It may have looked like this grain-drying area at Ses Tanquettes farm, Majorca, Spain. Note the gutter around the edge which, when filled with water, would have kept insects away from the drying grain.
From around 8,500 years ago, agriculture, including the growing of grains such as barley, began to spread from south-west Asia into colder, wetter, less sunny areas of Europe, reaching Scandinavia and Britain about 6,000 years ago. But did this mean the end of sun-dried malt? It did not. At Rauland, in Telemark County, southern Norway, is Maltsteinen, “the malt stone”, used by farmers in the past to dry their malt on in the sun. It lies further north than anywhere in mainland Britain. If you can sun-dry malt in southern Norway, you can sun-dry malt anywhere in the British Isles. And when you use sun-dried malt, you’re making pale ale. (Hat-tip due to Lars Marius Garshol here for telling me about Maltsteinen.)
Of course, much of the time the weather in Britain and Ireland won’t be sunny enough to dry malt in the open successfully, and by the Iron Age, at the latest, artificial methods of drying malt had been developed, using fires that delivered remote heat to malted grain to dry it. Here’s a plan of a Roman-era malting kiln founds on the edge of Hertford, a few miles from the town of Ware, which from the 18th to mid-20th centuries was THE big malting centre in England. The Foxhole Farm maltings was reconstructed, and found to be capable of producing a perfectly acceptable amber-coloured malt.
After the Romans left, a slightly different method of drying malt was developed. There are hundreds of examples of remains of grain dryers/malt kilns in Britain and Ireland from the post-Roman to the Early Modern periods constructed on a “keyhole” plan.
All the same, sun-drying malt persisted. Thomas Tryon wrote in The New Art of Brewing Ale and Other Malt Liquors in 1691:
“The best and most natural way of drying Mault is in the Sun in April or May, especially for those that makes but small Quantities for their own use, this makes, not only the palest, but the most Kindly and Wholesome of all others; the Drink made thereof has a delicate fine mildness, being of a warming exilerating quality, not so apt to heat the Body, nor send Fumes into the Head. In all hot Seasons it may be done, every Man may dry enough for his own use.”
It was said of the 1st Duke of Beaufort, Henry Somerset (1629-1700), who lived at Badminton House in Gloucestershire with a household of 200 servants, that “all the drink that came to the duke’s table was of malt sun-dried upon the leads of his house”, “leads” here meaning “window sills”. (Thank you, Marc Meltonville, for explaining to me what leads were!) As you can see from this illustration of the duke’s unassuming little home, he had a very large number of windows, and this, presumably, a very large number of nicely wide sills on which to spread malt to dry, protected by the glass from birds and vermin.
Commercial malt, and thus commercially brewed ale – and beer – remained generally brown until the first use of coke to dry malt, in Derbyshire around 1642. William Ellis wrote in The London and Country Brewer, in 1736, that “the Coak is reckoned by most to exceed all others for making Drink of the finest Flavour and pale Colour, because it sends no Smoak forth to hurt the Malt with any offensive Tang, that Wood, Fern, and Straw are apt to do.” But just as important was the introduction of indirect heating. At the same time as the introduction of coke to dry malt came a host of patents for kilns to dry malt with indirect heat, starting with Sir Nicholas Halse in 1635, with an invention ”for the dryinge of mault and hops wth seacole, turffe, or any other fewell, wthout touching of smoake”
Continental brewers, in particular German brewers, noted these “English malt kins”, using indirect heat: an “englische Malzdarre”, English malt kiln, which dries the malt using hot air generated by hot smoke passing through pipes to heat the malt without the smoke ever coming into contact with the malt, was mentioned and illustrated in a book published in Dresden in 1785. These were the sort of “English maltings” installed at the Citizens’ brewery in Pilsen in 1842 to produce pale malt.
However, continental brewers continued with air-drying to make pale malt, as described by Georges La Cambre in Traité complet de la fabrication des bières et de la distillation, published in Brussels in 1856:
“Sometimes the germinated grains are dried on kilns or hot-air dryers, sometimes in attics, that is to say in the open air or in other words, in the wind, as is the practice in some localities, in Belgium, in Holland, and in Germany, for certain beers.
“In order to effect the desiccation of malt in the open air, they were still content at Louvain to spread it in very thin layers on the floor of vast, well-ventilated attics, and to stir it by means of wooden rakes.
“All the malt used in Louvain is germinated for a very long time, air-dried and always brewed without first separating the rootlets which exist in large enough quantities to give the white beer its taste of a bitterness and a particular odour.”
In summary, then:
● It has been possible for at least 13,000 years to brew pale ales and beers with sun-dried or air-dried malt
● English brewers, able to make pale malts with coke-fuelled maltings, abandoned air-drying
● Continental brewers, for diverse reasons, kept on with air-dried malts, so that there was a witbier/Weissbier band using air-dried pale malt across Northern Europe from Belgium to Poland
At least one reason for this is that air-dryed malt is highly diastasic, meaning brewers could use large amounts of unmalted wheat to make their wit/Weisse beers.
(This is, in effect, the talk I gave to the second Ales Through the Ages conference at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia in November. My grateful thanks to Frank Clark, Whitney Thornberry and all at Colonial Williamsburg for organising a tremendous weekend of fascinating talks from great speakers on the history of beer and brewing, probably the best beer conference I have ever been to.)