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Sunday, 7 September 2008

Beer out of maize?

Well the last few days the “Scirocco” wind has been blowing a warm wind north from the shores of Africa and it has a brought a change in the weather at last. As the warm wind meets with cooler air flowing off the Alps it builds up clouds and the odd storm develops. One such storm came down over us on the night from Thursday to Friday and this morning we had a heavy, prolonged shower. All this is making it feel uncomfortably humid and the wind barely helps cooling things down. On the plus side, we haven’t had to water for the last few days.

Being in a period of the waxing moon again and having had some rain to moisten the soils, I sowed some more seeds out on Friday, namely celery, spinach, Tuscan black cabbage, lettuce and fennel. We’re also finding a lot of wild food at the moment, especially blackberries and walnuts. We have made a new discovery on Friday. On our way to Arcola we found a prolific source of wild hops growing up some shrub next to a canal. Just picking up a handful and smelling it you realise where the aroma of good quality beer comes from. So of course I couldn’t resist and we picked a whole bag full to make beer with.

Now I watched the beer-making process many times in breweries and whisky distilleries and I know the theory. Hops are of course only a traditional flavouring and preservative for beer the usual main ingredient being barley, or more precisely barley malt. You obtain barley malt by soaking the barley in water for a few days, then spread it on the malting floor in warmish, light conditions to encourage them to geminate. At this stage the starch inside the grain is turned into fermentable sugar. Once that has happened you arrest the growth by kilning the grain. This is done at a temperature of 50 to 60°C until it is dried and crisp. The result is than ground and finally with the addition of hot water turned into a kind of porridge to dissolve the sugar out of the mash. This would be the time to add your hops as well. The resulting liquid is then fermented to make beer. This in a nutshell is the way to make beer.

Whilst I know all this there is one snag: barley is not easily obtainable around here. In theory it is of course possible to make beer out of any grain. Most notably wheat is used for various speciality beers in Germany and Belgium, rice is routinely used in Asia and at least as a part ingredient in many American beers, in the Garfagnana region of Tuscany a micro brewery produces a beer out of a local and ancient kind of hulled wheat known as “farro” and maize is also used in America and parts of Africa to name but a few examples. However, there was a reason why barley is the best raw material, I just can’t for the life of me think what it was. Of the above mentioned grains, the only one readily available to me here is maize. Farro is grown locally, but expensive. I have unsuccessfully been trying to find anything written on the question whether you treat other grains exactly the same as you would barley. Anybody reading this got any ideas?

In the absence of any further info I decided to experiment anyway and soaked a large bowl of maize (or corn whatever you want to call it) to see if I can’t get it to germinate. I can’t say I’ve ever heard of malted maize. Maybe this is the difference, other grains don’t lend themselves to this treatment. I don’t know. Anyone who can shed light on this, please let me know!

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