Tuesday, 16 January 2018

A brief history of malt extracts

Captain James Cook.
We learned in school that he was the first European to circumnavigate New Zealand, but what we didn't learn is that he was also one of the first people in the world to brew beer from malt extract.

Many brewers are suspicious of malt extracts, either because they think it's cheating (which it kind of is), or because they think it will make inferior beer.  Once upon a time that was true, too, but malt extract has come a long way over the years and the extracts available today will make excellent beers if used correctly.  This post is about the history of malt extracts.

Malt extract is made by taking the sugar extracted from malt during the mashing process and drying it, until it becomes either a syrup or a powder.  Some brands also contain hop extracts, so that the brewer doesn't need to purchase hops separately.  It is of course primarily used to make beer, but it is also used in cooking, and when I was a kid malt extract (without hops) was sold as a health food.  It was the '80s, when people were obsessed with health but somehow you could still get away with marketing concentrated sugar syrup as a health product.

In fact, malt extract does contain vitamins and minerals.  The British Navy was experimenting with malt extracts as early as 1772, trying to create an easily transportable concentrated malt to supplement sailors' diets and help prevent scurvy.  These first malt extracts were not a great success.  When Captain Cook took some on his second voyage to the Far East (1772 - 1775), his crew found that the beer they made with it had an unpleasant burnt taste.  However, it apparently improved when they added spruce leaves and molasses.  Eventually, the British Navy discovered that lemon juice was a more effective and less expensive way of preventing scurvy.

The trouble with early malt extracts was it took so long to boil away the excess water that by the time manufacturers produced a concentrated extract, the malt was burnt and unpalatable.  Technological advances in the late 19th century made it possible to boil the malt in a vacuum, which reduced the boiling time and created a better-tasting product.  At this stage malt extract was primarily a dietary supplement, but from the 1880s onwards British breweries began using it as a cheaper alternative to all-grain brewing.

The birth of modern extract brewing

Ironically, the glorious golden age of home brewing products we now enjoy began as a direct result of prohibition.  The kind of malt extract we're familiar with today, designed for the home brew market and often containing hops, was developed in the 1920s.  When the Volstead Act came into force American breweries could no longer legally produce beer, so they had to adapt, and one of the ways they did this was to produce malt extract instead.  Of course the extract could not be marketed as a home brewing product, so it was promoted as a baking ingredient.  This 1928 advertisement insists that Zobelein's Bohemian hop flavoured malt extract is a food product for use in cooking and baking.  Not for brewing at all.  Honestly.

Courtesy the Homestead Museum
Image from KCET.org

Customers knew perfectly well what the extract was really intended for.  Once you have malt syrup with hop flavouring conveniently added, you can make beer by simply adding water and yeast, and this clever innovation ensured that absolutely anybody could make their own beer.

Prohibition homebrew recipes tended to be a simple mixture of malt syrup, water, yeast, and sometimes corn sugar.  I'm hesitant to try one of these recipes because the results were often pretty horrible.    1920s malt extract was not as good as the extracts available today, and many Prohibition-era recipes didn't use it very well.

Malt extracts for craft brewing

The United States beer industry took a long time to recover from Prohibition.  Beer was produced commercially as soon as it became legal again, but the range of beers on offer was sharply reduced.  Beer enthusiasts who wanted styles that were no longer available were forced to make their own.

In New Zealand and Australia the primary reason for making home brew has historically been to save money, but like their American counterparts Antipodean brewers were also interested in making styles of beer that weren't available commercially.  Until recently the New Zealand and Australian commercial beer industries were decidedly basic, and anything more exotic than a lager or IPA could be difficult to get hold of.

Malt extract manufacturers responded to the increasingly sophisticated home brew market by developing more sophisticated products.  There is now a vast range of malt extract types available, and to some extent this has been enabled by the internet.  Thanks to Google it is easy to find recipes for any style of beer you like, as well as plenty of tips to help home brewers achieve good results whether they're using grain, malt extract, or a combination of both.

To paraphrase Leibniz, everything that is marketable demands to exist.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Finished shaft grave helmet

Here it is folks, the shaft grave helmet is all done.  Sorry it's taken me so long to get this post up; life gets in the way sometimes.

This helmet was much easier to make than my last beehive helmet, and definitely faster, mainly because this time I had a better idea of what I was doing.  Otherwise it's fundamentally the same thing as my Phaistos helmet; the differences in shape and style are largely superficial although, as I'll explain, I do think the shaft grave style would offer better head protection.

So how historically accurate is it?  That depends on how correct our understanding of beehive helmets is, which we don't know for sure.  Unfortunately we don't have any surviving Mycenaean helmets to study, so any reconstruction necessarily involves some conjecture.  Based on art, literature, and archaeological finds it is possible to make deductions about how Mycenaean helmets were made and what materials they were made from, and I like to think this is a reasonable reconstruction based on the evidence available.

Here's what the shaft grave helmet looks like when worn:

Selfies are acceptable for research and/or educational purposes.

As you can see there's a lot of bulk in the helmet to cushion my skull in the event of an enemy hitting me over the head with a blunt object, or firing a sling stone at me.  Even at the lower edge of the helmet, which is its thinnest point, there's a good inch and a quarter (30mm) of padding and tough leather.

Although my shaft grave helmet is the same basic construction as the Phaistos helmet, I think it would do a slightly better better job of protecting the wearer's skull because of the extra padding.  Helmets made this way are naturally thinner around the lower edge, and placing curved pieces of leather stuffed with linen around the lower edge is one way to increase the level of protection the helmet provides in this area.

This is the internal structure of my Phaistos helmet.  You can clearly see how the thick bundle of leather strips at the top gives more protection than the lower rim, which is just one layer of leather.  Adding extra padding around this area makes sense.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Assembling the shaft grave helmet

Nearly complete shaft grave helmet, with its outer shell in place.

At this point the helmet looks finished, and it nearly is, but it doesn't yet have a felt liner.  Just like the Phaistos helmet, the leather components are stitched together with strong linen thread.  The joins are covered in red felt, which acts a little like a gasket and hides any places where the joins are a bit scruffy.

In this case the helmet shell consists of a conical top piece, and two curved cylinders studded with metal discs and stuffed with linen (see my first post on the shaft grave helmet for a cross sectional diagram).  I had a long think about whether I should glue the linen and then decided not to.  Aldrete et al, who quite literally wrote the book on linen armour, found the linen layers didn't necessarily have to be glued together.  The important thing is that you have a lot of layers of springy stuff to absorb the impact of any blows you receive.  Schlieman did recover a small fragment of linen armour from shaft grave V, which consisted of 14 layers and may have been part of a linothorax, but I don't know whether the layers had been glued or not.  It may not have been possible to tell.  Greece really does not provide good conditions for the preservation of organic material; even the skeletons in the shaft graves were not very complete.

In any case I found it was easy enough just to stuff the linen in there, so this helmet is padded with layers of unglued linen strips.

Helmet shell with linen padding inside.

Where the stitching holes are visible I've made them the historical way, with an awl, but many of the holes are covered by felt binding so I cheated on those and used a metal punch.  This is a punch designed to make holes in steel plate, and it is the easiest way of making holes in armour leather.  It's not historically accurate, but I find by the time I've bored a few dozen holes in 5mm armour leather with an awl I don't really care.  If you look closely at the holes it is possible to see they were made with a punch, so I do make sure I only use it on holes that will be covered.

The holes you can see here were made with an awl.

A note about the metal studs you can see in these pictures: they are made from a modern ferrous alloy instead of bronze, but they look like bronze age helmet studs.  They're fixed to the leather with a pin in the back.  Studs like these have been found in bronze age burials, but I'm not aware of any studs with pins from the Mycenaean shaft graves.  There are small bronze discs that may have been used to reinforce helmets, but they have perforations around the edges and were sewn onto whatever they were attached to.  Assuming they were helmet reinforcements, this makes me wonder whether the helmet shell might have been covered in linen (or other textile), with the discs sewn onto that.  It would even be possible to make the shell for one of these helmets entirely out of laminated linen instead of leather.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Shaft grave helmet: shaping

I made a core for the shaft grave helmet in much the same way as I did for the Phaistos helmet, except that this one has the leather strips tied around a bundle of horse hair.  This version went together much easier than the Phaistos one, because now I have a better idea of what I'm doing.  Notice how the bundle of strips at the top is sewn together?  The strips have holes in them and there's a length of strong linen thread twined through the holes.  This is important.  Just tying the leather strips together like a bundle of sticks doesn't work very well because the thread is inclined to slide upwards and pop off the top, and then you're back to square one.  Only the outer ring of strips need to be sewn; they keep all the other strips in place.

See how those strips are sewn together?

Now it's time for me to make the leather shell.  The curved padding around the bottom of this helmet will be made from leather stuffed with linen.  These pieces are simply long strips that have been shaped to form curved ridges.  As I've discussed before on this blog, veg-tanned armour leather can be soaked in hot water and then moulded.

In this photo the pieces have been soaked, curved, and stretched.  But as you can see, they're still not quite the right shape.  The edges don't curve inward all that well.  Even when softened, there's a limit to how much armour leather will stretch.

These edges don't curve nicely.

The solution is to notch the leather the way you would notch a curved seam on a garment.  I've cut small notches along the edges of the pieces, then soaked and shaped them again.  Now they fit around the helmet base much better.

These edges do curve nicely, even at the top where the curve is fairly steep.

I found it's important to cut the notches from the wrong side of the leather.  That way they end up being slightly smaller on the right side, and when you soak and shape them again they'll close up nicely.

Notice how the notches are a little wider on the inside than on the outside.  The notches should not be large - these are about 7mm long by 3mm wide.

Next time: assembling the helmet shell.

Monday, 6 March 2017

It's helmet time again!

Thanks to the magical carnival of capitalism that is Ebay, I've managed to acquire some horsehair.  And that means it's time for another beehive helmet, with a plume on top.

This time I'm reconstructing a helmet shown on a ring from Shaft Grave IV at Mycenae.  It's a very similar style to the Phaistos helmet, but with extra padding around the lower edge.

Notice how these helmets have what look like horizontal ridges around the bottom.  This is not unusual with the earlier beehive helmets and likely represents strips of leather that have been padded with either linen or wool, to provide extra protection.  The padded leather has been further reinforced with circular metal attachments.  Because of the way beehive helmets are constructed they're naturally thinner at the bottom, so it makes sense to put a bit of extra protection in this area.

Image from Bensozia

The following doodle illustrates what I think we're looking at here:

Blue lines represent the inner core of the helmet, and black lines represent the outer shell.  You can see where there's space for extra padding between the core and the shell.

The archaeological record tells us a lot about what a Mycenaean's helmet had to protect him from, and why a good thick helmet was desirable.

Head injuries, particularly blunt force ones, seem to have been common on Mycenaean battlefields.  We don't have a lot of skulls from Bronze Age Greece, but a number of the ones we do have show evidence of combat injuries and some had undergone trepanation surgery.  This would have been done to treat intracranial pressure caused by a blow to the skull, or to remove splinters of bone from a head injury.

The reason these people sustained blunt force head injuries is that they were, quite literally, hitting each other over the head with hammers.  This is a stone hammer from 1525-1450 BCE.  It is about 10cm long and would have been fixed to a wooden handle.

Hammer-head from Zakros.

Other weapons likely to cause head injuries were maces, axes, and slingshots.  Early Mycenaean swords were designed for thrusting or stabbing and would not usually have been a source of head injuries, but as we've seen there were many ways to sustain head injuries on a Mycenaean battlefield.

My friend informs me that the ancient Hungarians also practiced trepanation.  They covered the hole in the skull with a metal plate to protect the brain, and had a surprisingly low incidence of infections.  And did you know that the Hungarian word for a smart person literally means "brain drilled"?

Sources discussing skulls and skull injuries

Alusik, T.  2015.  Skull Trepanations in Bronze Age Greece: An Archaeologist’s View.  World Neurosurgery, 84, 2:214-217.

Arnott, 1997.  Surgical Practice in the prehistoric Aegean, Medizinhistorisches Journal.  Band 32, Heft 3-4.

Castleden, R.  2005.  Mycenaeans.  Routledge: Oxon.

Papagrigorakis, M. J. et al, 2014.  Neurosurgery During the Bronze Age: A Skull Trepanation in 1900 BC Greece. World Neurosurgery, 81, 2:431-435.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Pseudo-Sumerian beer: the first experiment

Last year I made Sumerian beer, using a recipe from 1800 BCE.  It was good stuff, so I decided to try modernizing the recipe.  The aim of the game here isn't to recreate Sumerian beer, but to create a modern style that retains the characteristics of Sumerian beer while being more appealing to 21st century beer drinkers (i.e. me).  Mostly, that means carbonating it.  Last year's Sumerian beer was quite drinkable, but I would have preferred it to be carbonated and I would also have liked just a hint of hops.  The Sumerians didn't have hops, but I like them, especially the aromatic types like Tettnang and Cascade.

Pseudo-Sumerian beer

As you can see, the pseudo-Sumerian beer is a dark amber colour with a moderate head.  The taste is malty with a hint of caramel from the dates and some nice Amarillo top notes.  I chose Amarillo hops because they're not too overpowering and have a delicate citrus flavour that works well with dates, which were an important ingredient in Sumerian beer.  The hop flavour is not especially strong, but it's enough to cut through the sweetness of the malt and provide a bit of complexity.

Like the original Sumerian beer, this recipe uses barley malt, dates, and bappir.  Making bappir does take time and adds an extra step to the brewing process, but without it the beer wouldn't taste the same and you can make it ahead of time.  I described how I make bappir in this post - it's just malted barley, a little bit of spice, and some date honey mixed into a dough and then baked.

This batch came out at around 3% alcohol by volume, because I screwed up.  I hadn't used Black Rock malt before and didn't realise that you're supposed to use two cans for a 23 liter recipe, not just one.  However, there are occasions where you might want a low alcohol beer and this is a good choice.  It tastes much better than most of the light beers you can buy in Australasia.

Pseudo-Sumerian beer (PSB) recipe

500 grams bappir
250 ml date honey, which is dates that have been soaked in hot water and pureed - dried dates are fine and much cheaper than fresh ones
1 can Black Rock Amber liquid malt extract - please note that this should actually be two cans if you want a full strength beer
500 grams The Brew House light dried malt extract*
50 grams Amarillo hops, boiled for 1 hour
1 sachet dried ale yeast - you can get away with using bread yeast

The bappir needs to be mashed, but this is fairly simple.  You just crumble it into a ceramic casserole dish, cover it with boiling water, and leave it with the lid on for an hour.  Using a ceramic casserole dish keeps the heat in and thus helps extract the sugar from the bappir.

Strain the bappir mash into a 10 - 15 liter pot, then add three liters of hot water, both cans of amber malt extract, the date honey, and the dried malt extract.  Make sure the malt extracts are fully dissolved, then boil the wort until the protein break occurs and foam forms on top.  You'll also want to boil your hops while you prepare the wort.  After the wort has boiled you can strain the boiled hops into it, tip it into your fermenting barrel, top it up with cold water to make 23 liters (or 6 gallons if you're American), and pitch your yeast once it reaches the right temperature.

There are two key differences between this pseudo-Sumerian beer and real Sumerian beer.  One difference is the inclusion of hops, and the other is that I fermented my PSB a lot longer than the Sumerians probably did.  As I discussed in a previous post about Sumerian beer, I don't think the Sumerians used secondary fermentation.  They did not know how fermentation works, and may not even have understood the concept of secondary fermentation.  Since their brewing conditions would not have been very sanitary by 21st century standards, they may also have found it was unwise to leave their beer fermenting any longer than a couple of days.

Secondary fermentation starts to occur about three days into the fermentation process.  By then the yeast has consumed most of the sugar in the wort and has produced almost all the alcohol it's going to produce.  It then starts to metabolise more complex carbohydrates, which improves the taste of the beer and helps get rid of any off flavours.  Secondary fermentation is therefore an important part of the modern beer making process.  I left my pseudo-Sumerian beer to ferment for two weeks to ensure it got a secondary fermentation, then bottle conditioned it for a further two weeks.

Feel free to substitute other brands of malt extract.  You just need an amber malt and a little light malt to supplement it. 

Monday, 5 December 2016

Commemorating 500 years of the Reinheitsgebot

2016 has been an eventful year, and at this point the one thing I think most of us can agree on is that we could do with a beer.  With that in mind, I'm sharing my recipe for traditional Bavarian style wheat beer.  I've been perfecting the recipe this year to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reinheitsgebot.

The Reinheitsgebot ("purity order" in German) is a piece of legislation adopted in Bavaria in 1516 that regulated what ingredients could be used in beer.  To some extent it was health and safety legislation, because in 1516 preventing beer from going off was a serious problem.  Brewers experimented with various additives in an attempt to increase their beers' shelf life, and unfortunately these additives were sometimes toxic.

The Reinheitsgebot stayed in force until 1987, when the EU rightly determined that it was an objectionable barrier to free trade, but its legacy still dominates the global beer market.  Most German beer is still brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot's specifications, and even here in Australasia most commercially produced beer complies with the purity order.  It has become part of the German beer tradition.

Originally the law required beer to contain only barley, water, and hops*, but German beer drinkers quickly found this list was too restrictive.  It effectively outlawed a number of traditional German beer styles that used different ingredients, including wheat beer.  So the list of permitted ingredients was expanded, and the first exception to be made was wheat.

My wheat beer recipe is a traditional Bavarian style, and doesn't comply with any version of the purity law because it contains honey and spices.  It isn't a historical recipe, in fact it's an extract recipe** rather than an all-grain recipe, but it tastes great.  It's a bold, full flavoured wheat beer with citrus top notes and smokey, honeyed undertones.


1.7 kg wheat liquid malt extract.  I use Mangrove Jack's Bavarian wheat, which already contains hops and has a packet of yeast under the lid so I do not need to buy these ingredients separately.
1 kg wheat beer enhancer
3 tbsp honey (approximately)
1 tsp coriander seeds, crushed slightly between your fingers to break them open
½ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground cloves

1 pack of carbonation drops for bottling – these are optional.  You can just use sugar or glucose syrup, but the carbonation drops are easier and more convenient.  I recommend them.

This recipe will give you 23 liters of beer, or 6 US gallons.


The secret to brewing good beer with malt extract is to ignore the instructions on the side of the malt tin.  Instead, bring 3 liters of water to the boil, then add malt, beer enhancer, and spices.  Stir until everything is completely dissolved.  Boil the wort, stirring regularly, until the protein break occurs and foamy white stuff starts to form on the surface.  Once the protein break has occurred you can take the pot off the heat and leave it to cool for a while.

While the wort cools you can clean and assemble your fermentation bucket, and re-hydrate the packet of yeast that came with the malt extract by putting it in a bowl of warm water with a little sugar.  Pour four or five liters of cold water into the fermentation bucket, then add the wort.  Add more cold water until you have 23 liters of wort in the fermentation bucket.

Pitch the yeast when the wort reaches somewhere around 20 degrees Celsius  (18 to 23 degrees is apparently the optimal temperature range for ale yeasts), and ferment the stuff for two weeks.   I find fermentation can be a little slow to start with this recipe, but it should start within 12 hours.  As long as there's a kraeuzen on the top it'll be fine.

After two weeks the beer is ready to be bottled, and it should be conditioned in the bottles for at least two weeks.  Four weeks, however, is ideal.  If you drink it earlier it's likely to taste slightly "green".

*  Remember, this was over 300 years before Louis Pasteur.  They did not yet understand the role yeast plays in fermentation.
**  At some point in the future I'll do a post on the history of malt extracts.  It's more interesting than you might expect.