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Don't ask me why, but I've sometimes daydreamed of building a working 17th century-style malting house. The malt produced could be used for onsite brewing demonstrations using 17th century techniques and recipes, with the resulting brew given out as samples or sold to the populace. I think it would also be fun to work out a slapstick sketch for a 'maltster' and a 'lazy assistant' who lets the malt burn. Such a demonstration would be a good 'draw' for a brew-pub, and a great conversation piece. Gervase Markham, in his "The English Housewife" gives detailed directions on building a malt house. He also discusses at length the best types of fuel to use to roast the malt, the best grains to use, the best kiln to use, etc.

The Malt House

Markham's ideal malt house is a round, two-storey structure, with a 'court' in the middle of the first floor for the maltster to stand. The malting floor extends around the circumference of the building on the first floor. A cistern, with a well pump or water trough next to it on one side, and a kiln and fuel bin on the other side, are on the circumference of the circle on the first floor, in easy reach of the maltster. A chute with a closure flap leads from the second floor grain-storage area to the cistern, so that the grain can run down into the cistern with minimal effort. The whole structure is open to the breeze and light, with windows that can be closed to keep out foul weather.

Markam discusses the types of malting floors commonly in use, with his favorite being the floor of a cave, since it is of even temperature, and will help the grain to sprout. Floors of clay mixed with horse dung and soap ashes, plaster, and wood (in that order) are his next choices, but they each have their flaws. Since caves are in short supply around here, I'd opt for an oak floor (pine, as he tells us, adds too much heat and causes the grain to sprout too quickly.) Floors made of paving stones are unsuitable, he says, because they sweat and cause the grain to rot.

The Kiln

Markham describes several types of kilns, but one of his favorites is a French kiln (unfortunately, not described), framed of brick, ashlar, or other fire stone, "and in these kilns may be burned any kind of fuel whatsoever, and neither shall the smoke offend or breed ill taste in the malt, nor yet discolour it, as many times it doth in open kilns, where the malt is as it were covered all over, and even parboiled in smoke: so that of all sorts of kilns whatsoever, this which is called the French kiln is to be preferred and only embraced." It may have been something like what is shown here, where the fire is basically in a room below the malt floor, and heats the floor itself. The malt is spread evenly to dry upon a 'hair-cloth' that covers a thin 'bedding' made of clean rye straw atop the kiln.

The Fuel

He goes on at great length about the types of fuel to be used or avoided, and its impact upon the flavor of the malt. For example, "furze, gorse, whins, or small brushwood... tainteth the malt with a much stronger savour [than bean straw]. To these I may add bracken or bracks,... but each one of them have this fault, that they add to the malt an ill taste or savour..." And again, speaking of using wood, "from whence amongst the best husbands have sprung this opinion, that when at anytime drink is ill tasted, they say straight it was made of wood-dried malt." Harrison, another 17th century writer, tells us: "In some places it [malt] is dried at leisure with wood alone, or straw alone, in other with wood and straw together, but, of all, the straw-dried is the most excellent. For the wood-dried malt, when it is brewed, beside that the drink is higher of color, it doth hurt and annoy the head of him that is not used thereto, because of the smoke."1 Wheat straw is Markham's fuel of choice because it burns sweetly and gently with "the sharpest fire... and least flame".

The Process

After it has been filled with grain, the cistern is then filled with water, and the grain is allowed to soak for three nights. Once the grain has soaked, the cistern is drained, and the grain is removed with a shovel and 'couched' (piled up on the floor so that the grain may sprout) for three nights. The couch is made thicker or thinner, depending on the ambient temperature. Once sprouted, the grain is moved into smaller and smaller piles around the circumference of the floor, making room for new grain to be soaked and couched in turn. Eventually, the grain comes all the way around to the kiln, where it is dried, cooled, and rubbed to dislodge the sprouts. "And thus you may empty steeping after steeping, and carry them with one person's labour from floor to floor, till all the floors be filled: in which circular motion you shall find that ever that which was first steeped shall first come to the kiln... and all the labour done only with the hand and shovel, without carrying or recarrying, or lifting heavy burdens..." One complete circuit, from raw grain to finished malt, may take three weeks, depending on the weather. The malt can then be used immediately or stored for a few months.

The Malt

Markham implies that the type of grain used depended upon a person's financial circumstances, as well as on the soil of the area. Barley was the grain of choice, and was of three quality grades. The best barley he calls barley grown on clay soil, the next is barley grown on mixed ground, which will suffice for families and households, and the worst is barley grown on sandy soil (this last is described as full of weeds and unprofitable), that was used by the poor. Oats were used when barley was wanting, but people also resorted to other grains in time of need: "Now I do not deny, but there may be made malt of wheat, peas, lupins, vetches, and such like, yet it is with us of no retained custom..."

The Brew

The color and quality of the brew depended upon the economic circumstances of the brewer (could she afford high-quality barley?), the skill of the maltster (often the same person), and the care with which her servants attended their duties (did they fall asleep and allow the malt to burn?), the type of kiln and fuel she was using, and of course the personal preferences of the household or village she was supplying. Careful malting without smoke or high fire was preferred in order to produce "sweeter, or more delicately coloured" malt. The best kiln described by Markham was one which dried by hot air, without smoke. The best fuel was that which imparted no smoky flavor to the malt. So, to be brief, I believe the ideal was a clear, light-colored and delicately flavored brew, but that this was often not achieved, either for monetary reasons or for lack of skill.

Here is a recipe from Markham's collection:

OF BREWING ORDINARY BEER ­ From Gervase Markham's The English Housewife, 1631

Now for the brewing of ordinary beer, your malt being well ground and put in your mash vat, and your liquor in your lead [cauldron] ready to boil, you shall then by little and little with scoops or pails put the boiling liquor to the malt, and then stir it even to the bottom exceedingly well together (which is called the mashing of the malt) then, the liquor swimming in the top, cover all over with more malt, and so let it stand an hour and more in the mash vat, during which space you may if you please heat more liquor in your lead for your second or small drink; this done, pluck up your mashing strom, and let the first liquor run gently from the malt, either in a clean trough or other vessels prepared for the purpose, and then stopping the mash vat again, put the second liquor to the malt and stir it well together; then your lead being emptied put your first liquor or wort therein, and then to every quarter of malt put a pound and a half of the best hops you can get, and boil them an hour together, till taking up a dishful thereof you see the hops shrink into the bottom of the dish; this done, put the wort through a straight sieve, which may drain the hops from it, into your cooler, which, standing over the gyle vat, you shall in the bottom thereof set a great bowl with your barm and some of the first wort (before the hops come into it) mixed together, that it may rise therein, and then let your wort drop or run gently into the dish with the barm which stands in the gyle vat; and this you shall do the first day of your brewing, letting your cooler drop all the night following, and some part of the next morning, and as it droppeth if you find that a black scum or mother riseth upon the barm, you shall with your hand take it off and cast it away; then nothing being left in the cooler, and the beer well risen, with your hand stir it about and so let it stand an hour after, and then, beating it and the barm exceeding well together, tun it up into the hogsheads being clean washed and scalded, and so let it purge: and herein you shall observe not to tun your vessels too full, for fear thereby it purge too much of the barm away: when it hath purged a day and a night, you shall close up the bung holes with clay, and only for a day or two after keep a vent-hole in it, and after close it up as close as may be.

Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading:

Markham, Gervase. The English Housewife, Containing the inward and outward vertues which ought to be in a compleat woman; as her skill in physick, cookery, banqueting-stuff, distillation, perfumes, wool, hemp, flax, dairies, brewing, baking, and all other things belonging to a household. 1615, 1623, and 1631 editions, collated and edited by Michael R. Best. Queen's Univ. Press. Kingston, 1986, ISBN 0-7735-1103-2. This edition is well worth having. (Best has modernized the spellynge, so it is no trouble to read.) Markham devotes several chapters to wine, beer, distillation, the ordering of the brew house, etc. He devotes an entire chapter to malting -- from the types of grains available, the construction of a malt house, building a kiln, etc., etc.

1 Harrison, William. The Description of England. 1587. The new edition by Georges Edelen, subtitiled: "The Classic Contemporary Account of Tudor Social Life," Folger Shakespeare Library and Dover Publications, Inc. Washington, D.C., and New York, 1994, p. 136. (Edelen's edition has somewhat modernized spelling and is very well annotated. The book contains descriptions of most facets of Tudor life, including directions for cultivating saffron, brewing beer, etc.)

Monckton, H. A. A History of English Ale and Beer. The Bodley Head. London, 1966.

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