Where There’s Smoke There’s Pale Ale


Henry Stopes wrote an influential book on malts and malting in 1885, reciting some useful history starting with observations on malting and kiln fuels by brewing writer Thomas Tryon just ahead of 1700, when porter starts its efflorescence.

Stopes accurately resumes 200 years of history in the practice of kilns and fuels, and gives this summary (via HathiTrust, as the next extract).

Essentially, he advises and encapsulates best practice as using the best coke or anthracite coal to heat malting kilns. By stating that kilns “of common construction” should not use common coke, bituminous coal, lignite, straw, brushwood, and peat, he is telling you that the flavours these impart to malt dried with their heat are not acceptable.

In contrast, anthracite, sometimes called stone coal, and best coke, imparted much less taste to the malt. The reason is they burn with almost no smoke. The sulphur, think the bad egg smell of coal gas, associated with softer coals are largely by-passed with this cleaner-burning form of carbon.

Anthracite has a very high carbon content, better than 90% depending on the mine location, seam, and geologic factors.

I remember handling such coal, physically with my hands, from a long-disused bin in my grandmother’s home in Montreal. Even in the 1950s electric heating had replaced Nova Scotia’s famed hard coal. Where the coals were cracked or rubbed they looked like a black diamond.

In Britain, anthracite in commercially useable form was found in Wales and almost nowhere else. Most coal used was bituminous, and this lead to serious problems with killer fogs as they were called until the pall literally lifted after the 1950s.

Kilns of common construction meant the fuel was burned in a brazier or open floor arrangement whereby the smoke penetrated the malt. By end of the 1800s other kiln designs had been patented to make the heat indirect. But before 1885 this was the exception not the norm, hence the best maltsters – it could not have been every one in practice – used hard coal or coke to minimize the imparting to malt of secondary odours.

The main exception was the preparation of brown and amber malt for porter, where various forms of hardwood were used: oak and beech, primarily but other woods are recorded or can be inferred e.g., alder as I’ve discussed earlier.

So, assuming pale malt was dried with fine Pembrokeshire coal, the resultant malt would taste clean and sweet, not a hint of smoke. Correct? Well, not exactly. Here are two ways we know this, or rather three.

The first way is, to check online what people actually say about the residual odour of burned anthracite. In this discussion by Americans on use of coal for heating fuel, one noted that burned anthracite leaves a subtle lingering odour akin to an extinguished wood fire:

I will say, there is a certain smell from burning coal. It is not unlike wood, where you get up on a cool morning and can tell from the smell that a neighbor has kindled a fire the night before. It is like that, but it has a distinct smell to it.

Others have referred to a sooty or earthy smell, and I recall it from the bin on Esplanade Street in Montreal. Sometimes too you hear reports of a faint sulphur note, as even good anthracite with its hard blue flame emits these odours.

So was an element of pale ale flavour this note, not the frankly smoky taste of burned hardwood but still something, well, carbonized?

Yes it was. Consider these statements by Dr. Charles Graham in his Cantor Lectures to which I referred in the last post (see the third column, second part):

What better analogy than a London pea souper to know what much English beer tasted like? Nor did Graham limit his observations to porter, then in decline in London. Graham knew very well what malting was, what all forms of beer were: he was a consulting chemist to countless breweries and an acknowledged specialist on beer at the time.

His statement that the fumes preserved the malt means it helped prevent, or delayed, the onset of mould, also adverted to by Stopes. Wishful thinking for the effect on palate? Maybe. To mix metaphors, necessity spawns the wilful suspension of disbelief…

The third way I know what coal scents in malt taste like is, I once had a whisky from the 1930s, Old Parr, a bottle given me decades ago from the cellar of a deceased relation. It had exactly a hint of my grandmother’s coal bin.

And so here is yet another factor, with Baltic Memel wood, mixed yeast cultures and Brettanomyces, and minimal mechanical cooling, to consider when deciding if a given brewing recreation matches historical example.

The saving grace is, probably some recreations will if only because of the great variety of beer types, flavours, and producers then. Some malt did issue from the newer, indirect heat kilns. Some beer perhaps was aged long enough for residual “creosote” odours to dissipate.

Some perhaps used imported malt, and Graham adverts to German practice which he knew well as he lived in the country for some years. Note in the first column of his above account that when tasting Weiss beer in Germany, made from air-dried malted barley and wheat, Graham thought the taste “raw, uncooked”.

Would he think all our craft beer today tastes that way, including all historical recreations except perhaps for some porter…?

This should incline us all, not to cease trying to duplicate the past, but to remember the many factors that make its perfect recapture a daunting effort. But it is still worth trying.

Obs. It is remarkable how often sulphur/barnyard, not the most appealing of odours, come into discussion of beer palate. It can come from the water, famously of Burton, from a precursor in very pale malt, from hops, from Brett, and from some fuel used to dry malt. Modern brewing has sought, successfully, to avoid these effects, yet craft brewing has brought them back in an attempt to create the different and sometimes the historical. It shows how relative palate really is.

Note re images. Image of anthracite coal is from an Indian exporter, sourced here, with interesting technical data on composition of different qualities offered. All intellectual property therein, as well as in the second image above, belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Used solely for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.