Last time, I dove a bit into word etymologies and such, attempting to dig up insight by dissecting the meanings of brewing words. “Malt” was the major focus, and I built (or attempted to build) a case for it referring to sourdough or some kind of sour grain processing.
Now let’s look at how I might be wrong. At least a little bit.
Pliny the Elder was a Roman author and philosopher who wrote what is quite possibly the most comprehensive compilation of knowledge from ancient Rome – Naturalis Historia. The work covers numerous subjects in varying levels of detail; it’s an invaluable resource for gaining insight into the knowledge and practices of the ancient world.
And luckily for us, it’s available for free on the Internet.
There are several chapters with which I will concern myself, but I’m going to zoom in on one chapter (well, OK, a couple) in particular: barley processing.
Pliny speaks highly of barley, and of a specific preparation called “polentam,” often translated as “polenta.” Technically, the word really means “porridge,” but that is very likely the root of the modern word “polenta.”
In any event, the processing of “polenta” is quite interesting. Barley is soaked in water, then tipped out and allowed to dry for a day. Once it’s dried out a bit, it’s then “tostum” – often translated as “parched” or “toasted,” but clearly meaning a direct heat application – and then ground.
Why go through all this trouble? Well, Pliny talks about that too when he extols the many health benefits and remedies associated with consuming polenta, barley-meal, ptisan (a sort of porridge), and a host of other things. In particular, Pliny remarks that polenta is “more wholesome for the stomach,” indicating an ease of digestion.
Throughout the book, many different methods of preparing grains are noted, and many follow that similar pattern: steep grains, dry in the sun, “parch,” grind, add stuff, and cook. He documents the methods of grain processing among other cultures, and the story is very similar.
In addition to the alleged digestive benefits, Pliny also indicates that these various methods of processing were excellent methods of removing the husk from the grain.
So, in addition to aiding digestion, this water-steeping/drying process also de-husked the barley, making it fit for human consumption by conversion to porridge or bread.
Does all of this sound somewhat familiar? It should.
Pliny is essentially describing a truncated, inefficient malting process. As you will remember, unmalted barley contains all the enzymes and RNA necessary to re-start germination, and many of the enzymes that we manipulate during the mash are active 24 – 48 hours after soaking with water.
In modern malting, we steep the grain, dump it into heaps on the floor, and allow it to begin germination (in essence). Pliny describes much the same thing, except that the intent was to dry and preserve the grain. His method for processing polenta also includes a “parching” step, not unlike the kilning that happens in modern malting.
Now, it’s worth noting that Pliny’s method is very, very short. It generally takes 10 – 12 days to properly malt a modern grain; his method seems to take no more than 48 hours. Still, it’s probably enough to stimulate enzyme activity – and the follow-up kilning may act as a mash, allowing the enzymes to convert the complex macromolecules. If we further assume that the “parching” to which he refers was low-temperature (and this is probably the case, as he specifically mentions that other people “parch more highly” – or heat at a higher temperature), then it’s probable that the grain will retain some distatic power. When that grain is subsequently used to make porridges or what have you, the heating will effectively work like a mash, finishing the conversion and breaking the complex nutrients into easily-digested sugars and proteins.
It is therefore likely that Pliny’s reference to the processing of “polenta” and other cereal grains – primarily to remove the chaff – incidentally resulted in low-efficiency malting. This technique would have been carried to Roman Britain, where it would have been taught to the locals – which may serve to explain the migration of the technology.
Perhaps when the same thing was attempted in the cooler, moister environment in the Orkneys, the grain didn’t dry as quickly, and wound up sprouting slightly. Grain processors would have discovered that the resultant grain made a sweeter liquid, and this would have become the desirable method of grain processing. Or, in other words – Pliny’s techniques are the common ancestor of modern malting, which was not fully realized until the technology was brought farther north into a different set of environmental conditions. The technique spread back down, and modern malt processing was born – signaling a fundamental shift in brewing methodology.
And thus, we see how the Romans accidentally invented malting. Well, OK – they took credit for it.
It’s quite possible that Pliny’s technique may have resulted in some slight souring, especially if the ground polenta was re-wetted and allowed to dry in the sun, as he suggests. I also find it very interesting that all of the various cereal preparations he mentions have some kind of spice or herbal addition; he mentions adding “coriander” at a rate of 2.2% to the polenta (it’s unclear if he means coriander seed or coriander leaf, since the same word is used for both in Europe), and other processing methods have other additives – such as chalk.
Pliny also mentions various “remedies” that make use of these processed grain products – many of which are added to wines or “hydromel” (the Latin word for mead). This is extraordinarily similar to the Hymn to Ninkasi process and the aforementioned 16th-century bread-beer.
It seems to me that this addition of herbs to the prepared meal could provide an explanation for the origin of the use of “gruit” in Anglo-Saxon brewing. Further, the addition of these herbs likely changes the flavor profile of the grain – perhaps making it “bitter” or “sour” as the original meanings of “mealt” and “maltr” may indicate. It’s also worth noting that “mealt” has a connotation of boiling or stewing – the sort of thing you do when making porridge.
Next time, I’ll explore the meaning of “gruit,” “wyrt,” “ealu,” and other Anglo-Saxon brewing words, in an attempt to figure out just what the hell “ale” might have been 1500 years ago.