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Perth and Kinross


Early brewing in Perthshire...

Preparing the perfect prehistoric pint
By Elizabeth McQuillan

Academics have pondered over why we began to cultivate cereal, and in particular barley, crops alongside our livestock around 4000 BC. Common sense dictates that these grains provided an ideal source of carbohydrate, and it allowed some welcome additions such as bread, porridge, and sugars into the larder. But archaeological findings also suggest that we were partial to a bit of ale to wash down our supper, and that we have been home-brewing for quite some time.

In fact radiocarbon dating of residues found in a drinking vessel in Strathallan, Fife, identified the alcoholic tipple as having been fermented as early as the second millennium BC (1540BC to be exact; at a time when the ancient Egyptians were erecting gargantuan pyramidal structures). Next to this archaeological find lay the body of a young woman, so perhaps it had been a bad pint, or there was some refining still to be done with that particular recipe.

Fast-forwarding to our crop-growing Neolithic and Bronze Age years, at a ceremonial site in Balfarg/Balbirnie, Tayside, fermented grain and plant residues were found in large buried earthenware vessels – evidence that the cultivated grain was being used for more than making porridge and bread. The sample also contained the pollen of Deadly Nighshade, which may have had hallucinogenic properties, or perhaps was designed to poison all the party guests. Again, the recipe maybe just needed a bit of tweaking.

But then, without the benefit of a biochemistry degree to understand the processes involved, these early brewers could only experiment and learn through trial and error how to achieve the best brew. Shared with their neighbours, they probably drank the good with the bad, and slept off the effects to come back and try another day.

So, what would the brewing process have involved in 4000BC?

Malting (germination) could be achieved in watertight vessels with frequent water changes or by placing the grain in a tied bag in a running stream so the water remained fresh and didn't require changing. Soaked grain would then be laid on a flat floor away from the outside elements and regularly raked and watered. Once the grain reached an early stage of germination, the grain would be dried with a kiln to preserve the sugars.

Mashing (when starch is converted to sugar) involved grinding the grain with quernstones. This would help release natural enzymes and speed the conversion of the remaining starch to sugar. The gentle heat needed could have been provided by hot stones or by using the ash from the fire.

Sparging is washing through the mash with hot water to produce sweet wort that can then be fermented. Our ancestors would have probably used their woven baskets for this job, and let the watery soup filter into an earthenware vessel. The spent grain provided quality fodder for the livestock.

Fermentation needs yeast, and there are a number of possible methods to explain how this yeast was introduced. Airborne yeast could be enough but, in the Western Isles, a hazel "wand" was traditionally used to stir the brew during fermentation. Each time the wand would stir a new batch, the dried yeast on the wand would reactivate the process. Perfect.

A couple of mystical, biochemical hocus pocus weeks later, and a tantalising pitcher of ale with supper was a reality. And a party a racing certainty.
nickbrand Posted by nickbrand
2nd November 2010ce
Edited 2nd November 2010ce

Comments (3)

I know your'e just the messenger Nick so please excuse the pedantry . Strathallan is in Perthshire not Fife .There was a vessel with a decorated base and others were believed to have had a cereal based liquid .After a reassessment of the evidence the belladonna at Balfarg is now thought to be unlikely . tiompan Posted by tiompan
2nd November 2010ce
:-) Sorry Tiompan, been having one of those days, of course it's Perthshire... could a Mod move it please? nickbrand Posted by nickbrand
2nd November 2010ce
Not your fault , Ms McQuillan seems to have just copied a Merren Dineley article . tiompan Posted by tiompan
2nd November 2010ce
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