Brewing With Egil Part IV: The Romans Did It First

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: Not just a beer

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.

Amber waves

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.

Remember this guy?

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.



5 comments on “Brewing With Egil Part IV: The Romans Did It First

  1. pcauldwe says:

    According to the article I cited here the repeated wetting/drying cycles were quite common in traditional grain processing. It was done (according to the article) mostly to facilitate the removal of the husk, but also served to make the grain tastier (i.e. sweeter) and more easily digested.

    Great work, BTW, I’m really enjoying your posts.

    • VFG is a great blog! I pick nits about the chemistry of the situation, though – saccharification doesn’t really proceed at an appreciable rate until proteolysis is mostly finished. One of my first articles is an extensive analysis of the life cycle of barley; the first stages of germination involve mobilization of stored starches, and to do that the barley embryo makes various proteolytic compounds from stored mRNA’s. The process of malting is really the process of breaking down the protein structure of the seed in order to allow saccharificaiton to proceed apace.

      The same thing would happen if it was processed into a porridge. The end result is essentially the same – a grain product that is partially enzymatically digested, making it more bioavailable.

      However, I think the combination of repeated wetting/drying (thus preparing enzymes for action) combined with sour leavening (further weakening of the proteins plus pH optimization for amylase enzymes) and low-temperature biscuit baking (liquid medium for enzymes allows optimal activity) would basically create a kind of crystal malt biscuit. Just need to build a stupid rotary quern so I can grind the grain to the right consistency.

      • pcauldwe says:

        A friend of ours here in An Tir made a quern. He foraged for a couple suitable river rocks, then had a professional stone mason dress the grinding faces for him. It works really well, and can produce anything from course meal to pretty fine flour if you run it through multiple times.

        Do you think you could get the right texture with a food processor? I would think the toasted grain would be hard enough to break down pretty well. An adjustable hand-cranked flour mill would probably work too, and might be cheaper/easier than a quern.

      • I just re-read your first comment and realized that YOU are Viking Food Guy. So again – awesome blog!

        My concern about the food processor is that you’d shred the husk. This is one of the reasons that brewers crush their grain rather than chop it – by crushing it, you pop it out of the husk. The husk remains intact and forms a filter bed for sparging.

        My thinking is that a rotary quern would do something similar: crush the grain and separate it from the husk, ensuring a minimum of husk in your meal.

        The funny thing is that the repeated wet/dry cycle should effectively malt the grain – which makes it more friable. Try eating a raw barley kernel, and then eating a kernel of some 2-row malt. The texture difference is remarkable.

        I’ve thought about a hand-cranked flour mill, but I’m obsessed with this quern idea. Not sure about getting proper river rocks and having them dressed – but I’ve found a project that uses Quickrete to do the same thing:

  2. pcauldwe says:

    Thanks, I’m glad you like the blog. 🙂

    I can see what you mean about the husks. I have a hand-cranked mill, and I might give it a try some time. I probably won’t get around to making a quern, but you never know…

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