Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Malting in Scotland in the early 19th century

Government committees. What a wonderful institution. They did a great job of accumulating evidence from important figures in whatever field they were investigating. Including those from the world of beer and brewing. They offer a rare opportunity to hear brewers from the past speak. Today we'll be hearing from James Meiklejohn.

Meiklejohn's was one of the first modern breweries in Alloa, being established in 1784. Their Candleriggs brewery was later bought by George Younger when Meiklejohn moved to the Grange Brewery on the edge of town. The brewery was later known as Bass Crest which led to a series of legal battles with Bass over their name and labels.

Meiklejohn wasn't interviewed on the subject of brewing but malting. It's a wonderful insight into the dawn of industrial brewing in Scotland. In particular, the souring of raw materials and transport. It confirms much of what I've seen in William Younger's brewing records.

See if you can spot the key points:
"Mr. James Meiklejohn, Called in; and Examined.

You are a brewer?—Yes.

Where is your brewery situated ?—In Alloa.

Have you been long engaged in trade as a brewer ?—I have been nearly twelve years, on my own account, in partnership with my father.

Are you in the habit of brewing chiefly the finer descriptions of malt-liquor ?— Yes.

Do you use in your works Malt made from English or from Scotch grain ?— We use both.

When you say you use both, do you mean that you use the best English and the best Scotch that you can procure ?—Yes.

Then, in any evidence you may give, in regard to the comparative value of English and Scotch Barleys, you mean the best of both countries you can procure?—Of course.

What proportion does the quantity of English Barley used in your works bear to the quantity of Scotch Malt used ?—I cannot state the proportion; we use more English than Scotch; it entirely depends upon the crop.:

Do you purchase Malt, or do you make your own Malt?—We make the whole of it ourselves.

Can you give the Committee any information as to the relative value of Malt made from Scotch and from English Barley, supposing both Barleys to be of the best description ?—It is difficult for me to state it particularly; I can only do so in a general way; this last season we have confined our purchases entirely to English Barley; and I consider the Barley of the last growth as superior to the average of Scotch crops, in point of quality.

What has induced you then to use only English Barley in your works?—From the superiority of its quality.

Will you state in what that superiority consists ?—In malting we are enabled to make better Malt from it; it yields a larger quantity of Malt, in proportion to the Barley, than Scotch; and in the brewing we have a much better extract from it, both in quantity and quality, but chiefly in quality.

Can you state the proportion which the saccharine matter obtained from English Barley bears to that obtained from Scotch Barley ?—I cannot state it particularly, from the circumstance of the over-measure of Malt which would be required to be taken into account in calculating the proportion of saccharine matter.

Do you consider a quantity of Malt made from English Barley as producing beer of a better flavour than Malt made from Scotch Barley ?—Unquestionably.

Have you ever remarked whether beer made from English Barley keeps better than beer made from Scotch ?—Yes, it is one of the chief properties of it.

What prices have you been paying this year for the best Scotch Barley?—I have bought none.

What price have you paid for the best English ?—I think the average from 27 s. to 28 s. per quarter, including all the charges.

At what place ?—Delivered at Alloa.

Although you have not purchased Scotch Barley yourself, at what price could you have procured the best Scotch Barley, also delivered at Alloa?—I could have bought Scotch Barley equal in weight and condition to the English at about 24 s. per quarter.

Can you state from what ports in England the English Barley you used came ?—From Lynn and Yarmouth; but what was shipped at Yarmouth, I believe, was bought at Norwich.

Can you state in what parts of Scotland the Scotch Barley to which you have alluded was grown ? —In the neighbourhood of Montrose.

Do you consider that equal in quality to Barley grown in any other part of Scotland ?—East Lothian Barley is usually the best that grows in Scotland; but I have seen no Scotch Barley of last growth better than that to which I have referred.

You have stated that English Barley malted more easily than Scotch ?— It does.

How does it malt more easily ?—From its vegetative properties.

Do you mean that it malts more equally ?—More equally."
"Report from the Select Committee on Petitions Complaining of the Additional Duty on Malt in Scotland", 1821, pages 64 - 65. part of "Selection of reports and papers of the House of Commons, Volume 15: Malting, Brewing and Distillation"
Remember that this is before the advent of railways. Meiklejohn bought all of their barley from England some years. Despite the fact that it was more expensive than Scottish barley. For the simple reason that English barley was better quality, malted better, gave a better yield and produced better beer. In particular, they were buying East Anglian barley, shipped from King's Lynn or Great Yarmouth.

East Anglia, if you were unaware, has the best climate in Britain for arable crops, especially wheat and barley. Having a coastline, it could be transported easily by sea. Very important before railways. Alloa was also a port, a fact that was vital for the development of its brewing industry.

Can you see where I'm going with this? If they could transport all the barley they needed by sea, what would be the problem bringing in the much smaller quantities of hops required. Obviously none whatsoever. That "hops don't grow in Scotland . . . . " argument looks more and more full of holes.

Meiklejohn's trade with England didn't just work one way. They were one of the biggest exporters of beer to the south. As this quote from another brewer quizzed by the commission makes clear:
"Who are the principal brewers for the English market at Leith and Edinburgh?—Alexander Dudgeon; Mr. Younger does some, and Meiklejohn of Alloa."
"Report from the Select Committee on Petitions Complaining of the Additional Duty on Malt in Scotland", 1821, page 28. part of "Selection of reports and papers of the House of Commons, Volume 15: Malting, Brewing and Distillation"
Like most Scottish brewers, Meiklejohn made all their own malt. I stumbled on a wonderful document the other day that listed the number of people in different occupations in every town and county of Great Britain. It's from 1830. Any ideas what was the commonest occupation in Alloa? Coal miner. Which fuel do you think Meiklejohn was most likely to use for kilning?

It's great being able to search books electronically for the occurrence of specific words. Thank you modern age. I didn't have to read the whole of the report to discover that the word peat doesn't appear a single time.


Anonymous said...

Ron, as you say, shipping was the cheapest and easiest way of transporting goods and the "hops don't grow in Scotland" argument does look flimsy.Particularly as there was once a Scottish hop growing industry anyway!
So much that's written about Scottish beer seems to have been the result of assumption.Such as the "cooler climate"-meteorological records show that Edinburgh and Burton have almost identical year round temperatures.

Gary Gillman said...

My belief, at this stage (1830's) of the history of British malting, is that commercial malting operations - non-artisan scale - would generally have used some form of coal to dry the malt. This extract doesn't prove that since it refers to neither coal nor peat for malting operations, but taking all with all it's fair to conclude that I think.

Even where breweries continued to malt their own grain, you would have to be a certain size to be noticed by government and called before committee to testify. Just as peat use died out in Ireland in connection with whiskey, it did so too in Scotland except amongst some distilleries in the Highlands. It was a long-term trend in other words.

That peat was used and indeed prized in the later 1600's for preparing malt for Scotch ale is shown from the Royal Society publication I've mentioned earlier, but there is an historical arc and I think it pretty much died out by the 1800's.

Did it survive here and there, amongst some brewers, or for some specialties in their line? I think it did, possibly, or an allied taste did. At least one mid-1800's observer found Scotch ale, bought in New York, to be "smoky" (I gave the link in a comment here in 2009, from Dickens Household Words). It's possible that small quantities of peated malt were used for some versions of Scotch ale, so small not to be noticed by maltsters manuals or mentioned to Parliamentary committees.

We must remember too that coal in kilning took many forms, as William H. Ford noted in the 1860's in his history of malting and brewing. There was as he recounts, stone coal, coke, ring-coal, "peat-coal" (which he though the best, a processed form newly patented) and other forms which varied in their sulphur content and smoke-producing nature.

I myself once had the good fortune to taste some blended Scotch from the 1930's in which there was an obvious "smoky" scent, the smell reminded me of the coal shed of my grandmother's house in Montreal in the 1950's. Coal can produce smoky tastes too, in other words, and I believe much 1800's beer was far smokier in taste than today's.

That something of this old taste has survived in the lines of some Scottish brewers seems likely to me whether produced today by peat, coal or (probably) more modern kilning methods.

However produced, a smokiness in one Scotch ale was a taste noticed as unusual - likened to bacon - by the American beer author Jim Robertson in the 1970's, a flavour I remember myself and one that is un-English in my experience just as the Belhaven's St. Andrews as I recall it 10 years ago was not an English taste in my experience again. Bacon is a term often used to describe German Rauch Bier...

I'll have to dig out Michael Jackson's taste notes on Scotch ales from the 1980's. He had a fine palate and must have noticed something similar here and there: I'll check.


Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, none of the British people I've spoken to or who have commented here have ever noticed a smoky taste in Scottish beer.

The beer that made Scotland famous didn't come from tiny breweries in the countryside, but from Alloa and Edinburgh. They made their own malt well into the 20th century. And the majority of the barley had never even been in the Scottish countryside: it came either from England or abroad.

It wasn't straight coal but coke - which produces minimal smoke - that was used in malt kilns. And if that did produce a smoky taste, why wasn't Burton Pale Ale smoky? They malted the same way.

William Younger used the same malt in all their beers - Pale Ales, Mild Ales and Strong Ales. Either they would all be smoky or none would be.

Gary Gillman said...

Yes, to be sure, but some tasters in the U.K. detect peaty notes in some Scottish beer. Here, a gent from Sutton-on-Sea gives St. Andrews an A and notes its "malty, peaty smell".

I find his review dead on, it's just how I recall this beer.

If you look at Caledonian 80 reviews on the same site, a Glasgow taster notes "some sort smoky taste". Numerous other reviewers, from all over, use similar terms. But many mentioned no smokiness.

When it comes to palate, one has to agree to disagree since everyone has their way to look at it.


Gary Gillman said...

Ron, I looked up Jackson. In the pocket guides (I consulted two editions from the 80's) he never mentions smokiness or peaty quality except for Borve, a new-generation brewpub. But because it is not an old-established concern, Michael's opinion of a smoky taste is less relevant for the question under review, IMO.

In Michael Jackson's Beer Companion (1993), ditto no reference to smokiness (but always maltiness, nutty quality and similar expressions) - except once. For McEwan, interestingly enough. He writes, "The flagship ales are characteristically Scottish, with some maltiness, and a hint of roasted barley that is reminiscent of peat...".

As I read this, he is saying roasted (unmalted) barley was used in the mash and caused a roasty/peaty taste, the one I recall from its export beers from this period and earlier.

I'd think Belhaven's smoky quality had (has?) a similar origin although I don't know for certain. Jackson doesn't mention smokiness in its regard though. Still, I feel it is in the same category.

Even if this is down to one brewery, Jackson noticed what Jim Roberston had 15 years earlier.

It's not much perhaps on which to trace vestige of a tradition, but I think it's something.


Barm said...

We might actually be getting somewhere if the truth turns out to be that some people think roast barley tastes of peat.

Gary Gillman said...

Right, but the question for me is, why are some traditional Scots brewers putting roast barley into (some of) their beers?

It can't be for colour only, since there are ways to do that without imparting peat-like notes.

They aren't making porter.

And they weren't, in 1978 certainly when Jim Robertson was writing (or today IMO) being affected by U.S. craft brewery developments.

And so...