Irrespective of the type of malt chosen as the base malt for a historic beer recreation (Chevalier, Plumage Archer, Maris Otter, and whether drum- or floor-malted, etc.) the question arises whether modern kilning methods will match those in place in Victorian Britain, indeed even in Edwardian England.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, this is just one of many variables to consider in seeking to create a historic beer product. No one variable (within reason) is decisive: no one variable, if not addressed in optimum fashion that is, necessarily means a historic beer is not legitimate.
Even if one used all Memel or English oak for fermentation vessels and casks, used mixed yeast cultures, used slacked lime to clean wood vessels vs. modern sanitation agents, used only period hops, etc., still one is making a beer today, with materials grown or assembled today that may or may not resemble those of the late 1800s.
But that’s okay, as back then there were thousands of breweries, as there are again today in Britain and the U.S. Beer would have varied in taste by region and even brewery, not every brewery made something identical to another even in the same town. There is lore confirming this even for an eminently “municipal” product such as London porter.
I believe most of the recent recreations, including the one I was involved in recently for an 1870 AK bitter, resembled some typical beer of that class then.
That said, the more one can align the historical factors to modern practice, the closer to an ideal one will get, hopefully.
To do that, for beers made before WW I and possibly for some decades after, we must recall that much of kilning involved the “products of combustion” going through the malt. I mean for all malt, not just brown malt that was blown or finished with billets of oak, beech, or other hard wood.
And those products of combustion were generated by coal or by coke, a form of smokeless coal of which the best was called oven coke.
I discussed recently that in 1874 British beer, including certainly pale ale, frequently had a “cooked” taste from the impact of burning coal and coke on the kilned malt. See this post that cited remarks to that effect by early brewing scientist and industry consultant Dr. Charles Graham.
Graham was contrasting this taste to the “raw” taste imparted by air-dried malt beer he encountered in Germany. Needless to say, all modern kilning is indirect or clean in the sense that while heated air is circulated through the malt, it does not have detectable odour from the energy source.
Whatever source is used, electricity, oil, natural gas, etc., the heating of the air is achieved indirectly. The malt produced in this sense is roughly comparable to air-dried malt.
Graham made clear some kilns in his time used indirect heating, and increasingly these systems would be improved, but most malting kilns in 1874 operated on the old direct-heating basis with the fuel placed on a brazier or grate that sent “products of combustion” up in the kiln chambers to penetrate the malt, sometimes through pipes controlled by valves.
The same was still true in 1904. We know this because E.S. Beaven, associated for decades with Warminster maltings, confirmed in an article that year that products of combustion affected flavour.
In Fuel Consumption in Malt Kilns published in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Beaven states at p. 478 that he would not make a change from anthracite and similar fuels, for fear of a change in palate.
He states somewhat coyly that he does not know exactly why beer has the taste it does, and suggests that whisky-makers similarly don’t really know why Irish whiskey differs from Scots whisky, but he does not recommend a change to the kind of system tested by Mr. Evans (read the page) where air-dried malt was used and the “palate” changed.
The coyness probably resulted from early health concerns about using coal to kiln green barley malt: sulphur and especially arsenic were flagged as potential health hazards, and politicians were starting to take notice and hold hearings.
One way to deal with this and retain use of coal was to burn off the sulphur and arsenic first, then let the coal heat dry the malt. The evidence under this “dual” coal-fired system was no difference of palate was detected, i.e., the arsenic didn’t give the beer a certain something.
Even with some possible trade exaggeration, the netted position was, unless you had an indirect heating kiln – and Beaven makes clear his article did not deal with those kilns, probably due to their small number – direct heat kilning with coal would not end soon.
As a producer of malt from a noted maltster (it exists to this day) Beaven knew the importance of not changing process where the beer might change in character. Whether or not, in other words, coal-fired kilning produced the “best” palate, it was the palate the British drinker knew, and enough said.
Beaven’s article mostly deals with how to reduce coal expenditure when kilning malt. Indeed it includes some impressive math and early cost-benefit analyses. Palate is not addressed, either for the type of fuel used or the type of barley, except on p. 478 as noted but those remarks are significant.
Should recreationists of 19th century English beers give their Chevalier or other base malt a quick finish on a coal or coke fire? I would say yes, but check health regulations first.
Yet, if you don’t do it as most recreations do not to my knowledge, as I stated at the outset, the game is far from up. A recreation is a cultural concept, to borrow a term I read in a 2016 blogpost by a gentleman I respect a lot who favours The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) keeping its cask-conditioning remit.
A brewing recreation will always be a cultural concept no matter what pains are taken to attain authenticity.
Note re image: image was sourced from Pinterest, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.