Brewing with Egil: The Fine Art of Burning Stuff

So now that I’ve got a prospective method and ingredients list cobbled together, my next phase will involve passes at more accurately re-creating the tools and ingredients that may have gone into making a Viking-era beer.

First up: the malt.

Malt is at the heart of beer brewing. Grains are allowed to partially germinate, and are then heat-treated to stabilize them and enhance their flavor. Depending on the grain, the method of malting, and the method of kilning, you can wind up with a great variation in types of malt, which is turn greatly influence the characteristics of the final product.

The  Senchas Már contains requirements for the production of malt, and I’ve speculated that cultural contact between the Irish and the Scots could create a plausible route of transmission to the Norse. Most large cereal kiln finds from the Viking era exist in Scotland, so it seems plausible that it was a center of production.

Typical fuels excavated from such kilns include local hardwoods, plant matter (sometimes peat), and occasionally dung. Dung is more commonly seen in Icelandic farm mound excavations and other fire pits; an analysis of one such farm mound revealed charred wood and dung alongside charred 6-row barley seeds – the presence of all 3 in the same layer may indicate that their use was concurrent.

Icelandic finds rarely include the larger kilns seen in Scotland. However, the principle of drying over a fire is pretty constant throughout processing technologies – and given that my current model involves a gradual transition from home production to quasi-industrial production, it makes sense that an Icelander may have used a conventional cooking fire for malt drying earlier in the era. It seems plausible that some extant structure in the Icelandic finds pulled double-duty.

The tradition of drying grain over a fire persists in Scandinavian homebrewing to this day, and is expressly documented in Olaus Magnus’ 16th century writings. It seems possible that we may be viewing a sort of living tradition, though I am always skeptical of such things.

So with all that in mind, let’s light some shit on fire.

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They probably didn’t do this when it was below zero outside, but screw it – there’s beer on the line.

Up here in New York, the ground is currently frozen solid, which makes constructing an in-ground malting kiln somewhat…challenging. Also, it’s fairly cold up here at the moment, so the prospect of chipping away at frozen earth so I could put a fire in it seemed…well, pretty fucking dumb.

I mean, when it was cold in Viking-age Iceland, they stayed inside. Where it was warm.

So instead of trying to replicate the thermal properties of the kiln/oven (which will come later, when the ground isn’t a block of ice), I opted to try out the notion of directly drying the malt over a fire. I have a smoker, so I figured it would work well for this purpose.

This experiment will help me figure out the fire dynamics, and gauge the effect of a wood fire on the flavor and mash characteristics of the malt. A more elaborate kiln may very well have a different effect, but this will at least help me ballpark it.

First things first, ya gotta malt some grain.

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Look at the little barleys, so fully of hope and life.
Theirs is a sad fate.

I used a mixture of an American 6-row barley and steel-cut oats; the oats won’t malt, but they’ll add some grain bulk, and my hope is that excess enzymatic activity in the barley will have some effect.

The method outlined in Irish law takes a bit more than two weeks, but I opted for a very short malting time – partly because modern malting barleys germinate substantially faster than do heritage varieties. The barley in that picture is starting to show acrospire formation, and that’s only been going for 4 days – 1.5 days steeping and the rest of the time being turned in heaps.

I drained the grains a bit, and then set them on top of some aluminum mesh window screening material, to hopefully keep most of the grain from falling into the fire. The fire was started with a little bit of charcoal, but fed exclusively with dried hardwood and the occasional blast of Icelandic kelp. Dung and/or peat would be more accurate, but I have no dried dung and I wasn’t exactly going to go looking for it.

On went the grain, and then began the waiting.

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This’ll be great! It can’t possibly take that long!

And the waiting.

And the stirring of the malt.

And the more waiting in the cold and the wind.

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This is maybe half dried, and I should emphasize that I was pretty damn cold at this point.

And then I said “screw this, it’s too cold,” fed the fire nicely, stuck the lid on, and sat inside for a bit.

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Once again, it’s almost like I know what I’m doing.

The action of the fire on the grain is interesting. The stuff dries fairly unevenly; as you can see, some of the grain is charred, some just very heavily roasted, some a nice chestnut color, and some a rich yellow hue. This is interesting, because it means that grain dried over a fire does not provide a homogeneous flavor profile; rather, several different “kinds” of malt will come together to make a richer flavor.

Some of the paler malt tasted a good bit like honey, rather akin to Gambrinus’ proprietary honey malt. That’s a result of grain “crystallization” (where the still-wet grain undergoes a mini-mash in the hull, and the sugars crystallize in the husk) and subsequent heat-based caramelization. Other grains are warm and nutty, and others are more like espresso beans.

What really struck me, though, is the complete lack of smoke flavor. The entire drying process took nearly 3 hours, and roughly 2/3 of that time had the grain being subjected to a fairly hard hot smoke. I did use a fairly clean-burning mild-tasting hardwood – but I still expected something to come through.

Nada. Not even a hint of smoke.

The really interesting part about that is that the Scottish kilns are designed to really minimize smoke intrusion, and also use a cloth (rather than aluminum mesh) to hold the grain. There should be even less smoke flvaor with that sort of setup.

The grain you see pictured is a little more heavily roasted than I’d like – a bit much char. However, I also learned that I have complete control over the rate of heating and drying – covering and uncovering the grain in conjunction with careful fire feeding lets me get some pretty solid temperature regulation. The next time I do this, I think I’ll have a better sense of how it works.

Next time, I’m going to play around with a prototype grain quern, to figure out how this kind of stuff may have been ground, and what it would be like.

Stay warm!

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One comment on “Brewing with Egil: The Fine Art of Burning Stuff

  1. […] fat, then heap it up and turn it periodically until it starts to sprout. Drying the grain can be achieved in a smoker or on a grill using wood and peat (and dung if you’re adventurous). Grinding grain can be […]

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