This blog was founded because of my dual love of bread and beer, two foodstuffs that are linked through their fundamental ingredients of grain and yeast. At some point after humanity settled and began growing crops, we discovered that grain, either whole or ground as flour, underwent a decisive process when mixed with liquid and left – fermentation. The first written record of all this is from ancient Sumeria (modern southern Iraq), the circa 1800BC Hymn to Ninkasi1 – the goddess of beer, or more broadly, the goddess of fermentation. Her followers may well have been responsible for beer and bread.
For centuries, fermentation remained a sort of quotidian mystery. Such was the significance of bread and ale as staples for the masses in Medieval Europe that the unknown ingredient had an almost spiritual nature and was called “Godisgoode”, “God is good” (possibly2). Early scientists thought the process was chemical not biological. The single cell fungi yeast and lactobacilli that fed on sugars and produced carbon dioxide – leavening bread and lending vigour to beer – wouldn’t be understood until the mid-19th century and the work of microbiologist Louis Pasteur.
Anyway. In Lewes, on the second Sunday of every month, there’s a street food market called Food Rocks. Not many people seem to be aware of it, so it needs a bit more promotion – as there’s some good stuff there. I was helping my friend Alex Marcovitch on his stall Kabak, selling delicious Eastern Meditteranean, North African and Middle Eastern-inspired foods. This time round, diagonally opposite us were Chalk Hills Bakery of Reigate, in the Surrey Hills, where I got myself ready for my shift with a delicious cinnamon bun, and Crumbs Brewing, where I met founder Morgan Arnell and “crumb spreader” Adria Tarrida.
Restoring an ancient connection
These two establishments have a noteworthy relationship. It’s one that reconfirms the ancient connection between baker and brewer. Historically, notably in Gaelic cultures, bakeries and breweries would have operated side-by-side, the barm – the frothy surplus yeast – from the brew being utilised by the baker to make a leaven for bread3.
Apparently, in some parts of Europe, the barm method existed alongside the sourdough method. Baker and food writer John Downes gives one Medieval example here: “In England noblemen’s bread, manchet, was always made with the barm method, whereas the commoners’ bread, maslin, was a sourdough.” He continues “Barm bread survived until World War Two and even later in the North of England largely as barm cakes.”
Anyway, as usual I’m getting distracted4. Crumbs Brewing aren’t doing this (yet). Instead,they’re using leftover bread from Chalk Hills Bakery as an ingredient. A few breweries are using the technique, such as Toast Ale, whose website gives the statistic that “44% of bread is wasted”. It’s pretty shocking. Any food waste is a crime. The amount of energy put into growing and transporting food, only for it to be thrown away is bad enough, but in landfills it contributes to the problem of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Hills to Isle
So the work of breweries like Crumbs is very important. Morgan, who founded Crumbs with his wife Elaine, says they collect any leftover bread, crumb it, and freeze it. When they have 150kg they take it to Goddards Brewery on the Isle of Wight. Morgan says Goddards were “one of the few brewers that was willing to test out our recipe and method, helped by the fact that I grew up on the Island so could twist their arm to help us!”
The longer term plan is to set up in the Surrey Hills too. Morgan writes more about the process of making the beer – their first batch was brewed in April – here on the Crumbs blog. The 150kg makes a 30 hectolitre5 brew, “c 6000 500ml bottles in our case” explains Morgan.
Suffice to say, the beer is delicious. I wouldn’t really be writing about it here if I didn’t actually like the stuff. It’s called an Amber Lager, and I can kind of see the logic of this naming to help it appeal to lager drinkers. It’s certainly light and refreshing. It’s bottled at Goddards and isn’t bottle conditioned, but its carbonation level is pleasant. To my mind it is more an ale than a lager, and it is indeed made with top-fermenting (ale) yeasts, not bottom-fermenting (lager) yeast.
There are so many craft ales around at the moment, notably dubbed APA and American IPA, which overuse the Chinook, Cascade, Citra, Mosaic hops etc to the point where they’re reminiscent of cleaning products, pine-scented detergent or whathaveyou. Thankfully the Crumbs Amber is more subtle proposition. Morgan says they use Progress hops, which the British Hops Association says, are “an excellent bittering and late aroma hop.” The overall flavour is more about the malt and bread. It doesn’t taste bready per se, but it has a warm sweetness and decent body, without heaviness. Morgan says “The slightly sweet, malty aftertaste is a result of the bread.” He adds that they plan to try brewing with different types of bread and it “Will be interesting to see how brewing with different loaves changes that character.”
It’s a great addition to the SE of England craft brewing scene so I’m very glad to have come across Crumbs at Food Rocks. Good luck to them, and I’m intrigued to try their next beers made with different breads: “dark rye stout or sourdough IPA anyone?”
1 The full text of the Hymn of Ninkasi can be found here. In English, not ancient Sumerian.
2 There’s some debate. This thread gives a few sources for the term, but it’s not entirely conclusive.
3 I’ve done a few barm bread experiments: here and here.
4 When one is actually paid to write journalistically, one mustn’t get distracted. There’s usually a tight editorial brief and even tighter wordcount. Not so on one’s own blog! Hah!
5 A hectolitre is 100 litres. 1hl is about 0.61 UK beer barrels, or So 30hl is around 18 UK beer barrels or 660 imperial gallons. For Americans, 30hl is 25.5 US beer barrels or 795 US liquid gallons. Good heavens I wish people would standardise things globally. Some might see it as heritage. I love a bit of history, but all these different weights and measures just make life even more flipping complicated. I sincerely hope “Brexit” doesn’t have us going back to shillings and scruples and chains.