Saturday 3 December 2016

Fulacht fiadh - primitive ale brewery?

In August 2007 two Galway based archaeologists, Billy Quinn and Declan Moore, suggested that fulachta fiadh were used primarily for the brewing of beer. To understand how they came to this conclusion we have to look at what we know about the history of brewing alcohol.

The earliest evidence for brewing of alcoholic beverages was found among the remains of the Neolithic village of Jiahu in Northern China. It seems that as early as 9,000 years ago people of Jiahu made alcohol from fermented rice and honey. The earliest evidence for brewing beer comes from Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains in modern day Iran. Here, calcium Oxalate, the principal component of an insoluble deposit related to the production of beer and known as beerstone was found on the inner surfaces of fermentation vessels dated to late fourth Millennium BC. A stamp seal from Tepe Gawra, a site near Mosul, Iraq dated to 4000 BC, shows two figures drinking beer using traditional straws and container.

At Hierakonpolis near Luxor, Jeremy Geller interpreted a site known as HK24A (3100-2890 BC), as a brewery. The brewery incorporated at least six coarse ceramic vats in two parallel rows set within a mud platform and probably originally covered with an ad hoc superstructure to contain the heat. Each vat, with a height of at least 65cm and a maximum diameter of 85cm, in brewing terms, might be considered a mash-tun, in which the infusion of ingredients (mainly emmer wheat and fruits for sugar and taste) was maintained at a warm temperature. Preliminary analysis of the black shiny residue with cereal grains still embedded found within the vats revealed compounds identified with all phases of biosynthetic fermentation. Based on ethnographic parallels, Geller suggested that the production of beer was a two day process: one day to bring the mash to temperature and cool it down and another day to ferment. There is no explicit information on how the vats were heated, but based on the vat dimensions they were probably heated by the hot coals piled around the base of the vats, in the same way the traditional cooking vats are still heated in Serbia.

Given the outlay for fuel necessary to sustain the needed heat, it is possible that the brew was transferred from the vats to ferment elsewhere, thus freeing the vats for another batch before full cooling of the installation. If this were the case, a great deal of beer could be produced on a daily basis.

If used on a full time basis, this brewery could produce 300 gallons a week allowing 2 days for fermentation in the vat. Output could be as high as 300 gallons a day if the liquid was transferred to other vessels for fermentation. This is output clearly far in excess of domestic needs.

The Epic of Gilgamesh contains references to Siduri; an archetypical brewster and barmaid who gave beer, comfort and counsel to Gilgamesh, greatest of the Sumerian kings. Archeological sites throughout the Near East have yielded thousands of cuneiform tablets containing recipes for and prayers in praise of beer. Among the many types of brew made by these ancient brewsters of Sumeria were: black beer, white beer, red beer, beer of two parts, beer from the nether-world, beering for the offering (sacrifice), mother beer, beer for the supper, beer with horns, wheat beer and beer with a head. As in the later society of ancient Egypt, Sumerian-Mesopotamian beers were made from bread loaves called “bappir.” Barley malt was rendered into a bread cake form, crumbled into water, and with the aid of ambient, airborne yeast, fermentation took place. Most ancient societies used honey as a source of fermentable sugar.

For the ancient Egyptians, beer was so important that the hieroglyphic symbol for food was a pitcher of beer and a cake of bread. Egyptian hieroglyphics tell of dozens of varieties of beer for both this world and the next. Pharaohs were routinely buried with tiny model breweries complete with miniature wooden brewers to ensure a regular supply of beer on the arduous journey to the afterworld.

Egyptian beer, called “Hekt,” was widely exported all over the known world: to Rome, Palestine, and as far away as India. Egyptian women brewed their beer in an area of the kitchen called “the pure,” the lady of the house always supervising. Although royal brewers were sometimes men, most Egyptian beer was made and sold by women who developed scores of beer styles. Brown beer, iron beer, sweet beer–lagered with dates, neter or strong beer, white, black, and red beer and Nubian “boosa”, were just a few of the beer styles commonly made. Special brews for religious purposes included Friend’s beer; the beer of the Protector; Hemns or old beer; the Beer of Truth; the beer of the goddess Maat; and Setcherit, a narcotic beer using as a sleeping draught. Hops were unknown to the ancient Egyptians although bitter herbs like Lupin and Skirret were often used to bitter the brew or served as an appetizer with the beer itself.

In Africa, beer is still made using the same ancient recipe and procedure. Red or white sorghum (or millet) is placed into cold water to swell and germinate.  A few days later, it is piled up in a basket, and after it has germinated a few more days, it is dried in the sun and is then pounded into flour.

A large beer making pot, like this one from Mambila - Nigeria, Cameroon, is half filled with water. 

To see the scale of these pots, here is a picture of one being made.

You can see that they are the same size as the large cooking pots from Serbia or large Beakers from Ireland. 

Coal is piled around the base of the pot and water is heated until boiled. The flour is then poured into the boiling water.  The resulting porridge is continually stirred with a wooden stick, while cold water is progressively added.

When the large pot is filled with cold water, a little sour banana beer or yeast is poured in for fermentation, and the slurry is allowed to settle to the bottom. Beer is then drunk from the fermentation pot using straws.

Or can be drunk from gourds

Pictures of the primitive beer brewery in action in Nigeria can be seen in a brilliant article entitled "Chapalo: Millet Beer, Julia Child... and Hookers" which you can find on the great blog entitiled "Cooking outside of the box". 

The author of the article describes the brewing of "chapalo", local brew which is made from red millet, but which can also be made of sorghum, or a combination of both. 

"First, the millet is washed in large buckets of distilled water kept in clean, plastic garbage cans. Then the grain is transferred to the cauldrons. These are covered and left to boil for two days, after which the contents are strained through a large, loosely woven basket into a wide, shallow pan. Once the honey-brown liquid is collected, the pan is placed in the shade of a straw mat hangar that also serves as a bar. Yeast is added, and the chapalo is allowed to cool and ferment for one day before it is served to the customers..."

Millet beer is still brewed in pots and vats in the same way in other parts of the world. 

Here is a woman from Pathak India brewing millet beer in pots heated with charcoal piled around the bottom of the pots.

In the Balkans this type of millet beer is called "boza". Boza is a thick, fermented beverage (containing up to 4 percent alcohol) with a sourish or sweetish  taste. The boza is made of various kinds of flour (barley, oats, corn, wheat), but boza of best quality and taste is made of millet flour.

To make boza slightly roast the flour (until rosy in colour). Take care not to get it burnt. Mix it with only a bit of lukewarm water. Pour the mixture into a pot filled with the rest of the water and put it on the plate. Add the sugar and leave the liquid to boil stirring it once in a while. Keep boiling for 5-6 minutes still stirring. Remove the pot from the fire and let it cool. Add 1 teacupful of boza or yeast to start fermentation. Leave the mixture in a warm place for 2-3 days to ferment. That's it. You can now drink it and enjoy it.

The world’s earliest written recipe, a Sumerian cuneiform tablet dating to 1800 BC, describes the brewing of beer.

The tablet contains the Hymn to Ninkasi, the goddess of beer who was also known as 'the Lady of the inebriating fruit'. 

The hymn is also the detailed description of the beer production process, whose starting point is preparing the beer mash in a pit in the ground using ‘sweet aromatics and honey’.

You are the one who handles the dough,
[and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, You are the one who handles
the dough, [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date]-honey.

And this is what made Billy Quinn and Declan Moore conclude that fulacht fiadh troughs could have been used as wort mixing and heating pits. As they say in their article about ale brewing in fulacht fiadh, "considering that a pit was integral to the brewing process in the Fertile Crescent at least 5500 years ago, and that there is no description of how the temperature was controlled during the wort pit brewing. Now the pits, being dug in the ground, can only be heated from the inside. In my article about pit ovens i described constriction and use of pit ovens for baking, roasting and steam cooking. They were all either heated directly by fire burning inside of the pit, like in tandoor pit ovens, or by fire heated stones placed on top of fire burning inside of the pit. Boiling pits can also only be heated from the inside but because they are filled with water, we can't heat them by lighting fire inside of them. The only way to heat boiling pits is by using stones stones heated on the fire burning outside of the pit. So if pits were used by the ancient Mesopotamians for heating and mixing wort, they could only have been heated using fire heated stones. 

Or not...

This is a view from above of a millet beer brewery in someone's home in Segou, Mali. 

You can see that pots (cauldrons) look like they are placed into pits dug into the ground. How are they heated you might ask?. If they have been sank into pits, then they surely can only be heated by hot stones placed directly into the liquid, right? 


On the great travelogue called "Jude's travels" you can find this picture of a woman brewing "pito" beer in Ghana. Pito? "pi to" = "drink this" in Slavic languages??? "pivo" = "pi ovo" = "drink this" bear in Slavic languages??? 

Leaving this linguistic enigma aside, the important thing to notice on this picture is that what you are seeing is the same type of brewery like the one from Mali, with cauldrons "sunk into pits". But actually an artificial hill was made from clay around cauldrons mounted on stones fixing the structure in place. Fire is burned in the space between the stones holding the cauldron.

This is a great film, showing how beer is brewed in one of these primitive breweries in S├ęgou.

So is it possible that what was in the above "recipe" described as a "pit" which could only be heated by inserting hot stones into the liquid contained within it, was actually a pot mounted into a pit in a clay hill brewery like the one on the above pictures, and which was heated by the fire burning below the pot??? I mean everywhere else in the world people used pots and vats heated from the bottom to make beer, right?

Wrong again. 

Guess what. The way of heating wort using fire heated stones was used in Europe until very recently.  In Germany the hot rock method for heating wort in mash tuns was used by Rauchenfels brewery, Bavaria. In Germany the bear made using this technique is called ‘stein beer’ (stone beer). Also, in Finland an unhopped ale called sahti, still served at rural feasts in Finland, is also prepared using the same method of heating wort by immersing hot stones into a wooden mash tun.

You can find more information about "stein beer" and "sahti beer" as well as recipes for making them in on "Brew your own" website. This is a great video showing how making the stein beer is done today in USA. This and this are good articles about sahti brewing using traditional equipment.

So we know that people in Europe used hot stones for heating wort as part of the ale brewing procedure until very recently. But when did Europeans start brewing beer is not clear. It is possible that first grain based meads and ales were brewed in northern Europe as far back as neolithic times. Thousands of charred cereal grains were found at the Neolithic site at Balbridie in Scotland dated to 3900-3500 BC. Pottery from Machrie Moor site at Arran in Scotland dated to the same period, were found to contain cereal pollens. Beaker people who arrived to Britain and Ireland around 2500 BC, probably didn't drink water out of all those high-status drinking vessels found in their graves. At Bronze Age site at Perthshire, Scotland dated to 1540 BC, archaeologists discovered a ‘black greasy material’ in a food vessel. Pollen analysis indicated that it most likely represented a remain of a fermented grain base alcoholic drink, a cereal-based ale.

So, we have:

1. Mesopotamian ale making recipe which says that the wort was heated and mixed in pits which were most likely heated by fire heated stones dated to 1800 BC (stain beer)
2. British Bronze Age ale dated to 1500 BC
3. A long standing reputation that Irish people have for alcohol consumption without any idea how did the Bronze and Iron Age people in Ireland brew
4. A lot of wood or stone lined pits (troughs) with a fire place and pile of stones which cracked because of the repeated heating and cooling (fulachta fiadh) that no one knows for sure what they were used for.

Knowing all this the question Billy Quinn and Declan Moore asked seems almost inevitable: Were fulacha fiadh ale breweries, where troughs were used as the wort mixing and fermenting pits heated by fire heated stones?

In order to answer their question the two Galway archaeologists decided to try and make beer using their own fulacht fiadh. They dug a pit and placed a wooden trough inside it. They filled it with water and crushed sprouted roasted barley. They then heated stones on a fireplace and used them to heat the mush in the trough to approximately 67° Celsius for about an hour. This produced wort, a glucose-rich syrup solution. To maximise the sugar yield from the grain the wort was sparged (washed trough with hot water) using wicker basket. After an hour the mixture in the trough was brought to a boil for a short time to pasteurise it. The end product was then transferred to storage vessels (copies of beaker culture pots), yeast was added to promote fermentation, flavourings were added to improve taste and several days later the end product was an unhopped ale. Here is the picture showing the two home brewers hard at work and the equipment they used in the brewing process.

You can read the detailed description of their brewing experiment in this article on their website. I would here just want to quote the last two paragraphs:

"We produced what is more properly termed a gruit ale (gruit is a term used to describe the herbal mix used to flavour ale). Through our experiments, we discovered that the process of brewing ale in a fulacht using hot rock technology is a simple process. To produce the ale took only a few hours, followed by a three-day wait to allow for fermentation. Three hundred litres of water was transformed into a very palatable 110 litres of ale with minimal work. The real labour for the Bronze Age brewer would have been gathering, malting and milling the barley. The spent grain provided the ingredients for a dozen malt loaves and the rest was used as cattle fodder. Other than the shattered stone and the remains of the fire, there was no wastage.


So, what is the evidence for brewing? First, the experiment worked. Fermentation caused by windblown yeast even occurred in the leftover mash in the trough within a few hours. Secondly, a number of quernstones have been found in association with fulachts – indicating that grain processing was taking place nearby. Furthermore the fact that hot rock brewing was carried out to an industrial level until the early part of the last century (and indeed is still practised at a vernacular level in Scandinavian Countries today) testifies to the efficiency of the process.

In conclusion beer at its most basic is fermented liquid bread and is a highly nutritious beverage. Our ancestors would have consumed ale on a daily basis as a healthy, uncontaminated, comfort drink. But this does not preclude the fact that in the long Bronze Age evenings and nights, family groups likely sat around a blazing fire telling tales, interacting socially and enjoying the warmth, well-being and genial companionship that ale enhances.

We suggest that the fulacht fiadh was possibly multifunctional, the kitchen sink of the Bronze Age with many conceivable uses. For us, however, a primary use seems clear – these sites were Bronze Age micro-breweries."

Now this is very interesting. I definitely agree that fulacht fiadh could have been used for brewing. The brewing temperature of 67 degrees Celsius is well below the bubbling boiling temperature and therefore well bellow the high temperature loss through surface threshold. This means that heating the mush in the fulacht fiadh trough is quite efficient. By the way, it is very interesting that the brewing temperature is the same as the hot water acorn leaching temperature. Hot water leaching was also done in pits and I suggested in my last post that fulchta fiadh could have been used as acorn leaching facilities. This raises an interesting question. Was brewing discovered by chance when people applied the same procedure used for acorn leaching on grain?

However, there is a problem with the theory that fulacht fiadh were used for brewing ale. The same problem that the theory that they were used for acorn leaching and food cooking. This is an excerpt from the original article about the fulacht fiadh brewing experiment:

"Seeking authenticity in replicating our Bronze Age ale we decided that our equipment should be as basic as possible. The wooden trough, posthumously donated by Billy’s granduncle, was 60 years old, leaky, wedge-shaped and measured 1.7 m in length, 0.7 m in width with a depth of 0.65 m (roughly consistent with the average trough dimensions from excavated examples). When filled with water to a depth of 0.55 m, it held 350 litres. In an attempt at caulking the more obvious gaps moss and alluvial clay was applied. Where this process was carried out with care no leaks occurred. After digging a pit, the trough was lowered into the ground and water added. Despite some initial leakage we eventually reached an equilibrium in the water level by simply flooding the immediate area."

Basically fulacht fiadh troughs, which were lined with wooden planks or stone plates were not watertight. This means that they would leak water out into the ground leading to the significant loss of the precious wort. That is if you are lucky, and your fulacht fiadh was built on a dry well drained soil. However, as I have said already in my previous posts about fulachta fiadh, most of them were built on marshy boggy grounds. A leaky trough lining a pit dug in such ground would quickly fill with marshy boggy acidic bad tasting dirty water. Not something you want to eat or drink... So unless the troughs of these bog fulachta fiadh were made in some way completely watertight, which is quite difficult, there is no way they were used for food preparation of any way...What is very interesting is that there is a very easy way to make completely watertight large wooden troughs. All you need to do is to fall a large enough tree, cut a two meter piece of the trunk, and split is vertically into half and then hollow one half to make a trough. A completely watertight trough. The makers of sahti beer use exactly such troughs called kuuran for flavouring and spariging:

And we know that people of bronze age Ireland were perfectly able to make such dugout troughs, because we have found huge dugout canoes made at the same time when fulacht fiadh were made. Like the Lurgan canoe which is over 4000 years old and which was discovered in 1901 in a Co. Galway bog:

These type of troughs were widely used throughout the world. Here is one used for watering cows:

So if one of the main challenges for our bronze age brewers, as our Galway archaeologists turned brewers claim, really was how to heat large volumes of water to make a wort in the absence of suitable large metal containers, a dugout trough one tenth of the size of the above dugout canoe would have sufficed. No leakage problems found in fulacht fiadh plank lined pits...However I don't think that bronze age brewers had the problem "how to heat large volumes of water to make a wort" at all. If you look at the copies of the beaker pots they used in their brewing experiment, you can see that they are approximately the same size as the largest of the vessels used for brewing beer in primitive societies. They are free standing, and could have easily been heated by hot coals piled around the base, and you could boil hundreds of litres of worth in them no problem...So I don't think that bronze age Irish would have needed fulacht fiadh troughs to heat up the worth. 

Another reason why I don't think fulachta fiadh were used as breweries is that if you wanted to make beer, wouldn't you make it close to the place where you would drink it, like the village where you lived. And close to the granary where you kept your grain. And not in the middle of nowhere, far from any villages, which is where we find fulachta fiadh? This is the way things were done in every early and primitive society that made beer...There were roads in Bronze Age Ireland and I wrote a post about them called "Togher, Tocher - Wooden trackways". But the road network was tiny and I don't think most fulachta were on that network. I would have been very impractical to drag the grain from villages to far away fulachta and then drag beer back to the village. 

So I believe that if bronze age Irish did brew beer, they did it in large beakers heated with hot coals piled at the bottom, probably in their villages. But if their eyes were really bigger than their bellies, and they thought that couple of hundred litres of beer was not enough for a party, they could have used , kuuran like dugout vessels, heated using hot stones, again in their villages...

So I really don't believe that fulachta fiadh were used as breweries, even though they could have been. There are easier and more practical ways to brew beer that were available to the bronze age Irish. Remember, people are lazy and will use the easiest way to do things...As one of my university professors said "Laziness is the mother of all invention"...

But if so, what were fulacht fiadh troughs used for? Well as I explained in my post "Fulacht fiadh - acorn leaching pit?" they could have been used for leaching acorns during acorn food production. But that was not the only thing fulachta fiadh could have been efficiently used for. More in my next posts. Until then drink responsibly :)


  1. Fabulous post, thank you for the exhaustive background. I still think that for huge, major clan or multi-clan feasting events, people could have come a long way and might set up an area outside the village for ritual drink and feasting. Stonehenge is now found with an entire "feasting settlement" beside it with cattle and beer consumption! One other potential use of these pits could be, and the bog water might even "fix" the colors! Another thought was cheesemaking, but even on a large scale that could adequately be done from heating in the big urns.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I do agree with you that feasts could have potentially been held at fulachta, but because of the leaking problem, and because of the fact that the bronze age Irish had large pots which could have been used for beer production, I still don't believe that fulacht throughs were used for wort cooking. Definitely not the ones dug into bogs. As for other possible uses, I have few more posts to publish, so I think you will find them interesting.