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  • Malting and Malthouses in Kent by James Preston

    When I have mentioned that I have been looking for malthouses the general reaction has been a blank look. Malt as a material is no longer understood. It has no relevance to generations that were not fed cod liver oil and malt or Virol! It might as a word appear on malt vinegar labels but has no meaning for most people. Even its connection with beer is not recognised. Beer emerges from a brewery, with a flavour of hops which is recognised in Kent because of the number of oast houses, but the fact that beer is made of malt and water is not understood by many. I have to explain that malt is made from barley which is germinated before being kilned to whatever degree is desired for the type of beer being produced. I then have to go on to describe the type of building used in the process, and what features would distinguish a malthouse from a hop oast.

    This is part of the reason that I wanted to put this information into book form, to make accessible for the first time for Kent what had happened to a once widespread industry that had disappeared from view. Another reason for publishing is that over the years I had accumulated a mass of miscellaneous notes relating to a wide number of malthouses, had photographs of most of the extant buildings, and it seemed appropriate to share my knowledge.

    Malting pic 1 Moving grain from the store to the steep using a traditional barrow. (Whitbread plc)

    The malting process in Kent was floor malting in which barley was soaked for a couple of days before being spread over a floor to germinate and sprout, being turned all the while to promote even growth and to prevent matting. Once the sprouts had reached roughly half an inch the green malt was kilned to stop growth and help convert the starch to sugars. The process determined the type of building utilised. This was usually long and with low ceilings to help with temperature control, with a kiln block at the opposite end to the soaking steep. The length of the building allowed the grain to be moved towards the kiln as it was turned on the floor. Early malthouses looked very similar to oasts, but had one distinguishing feature, other than the low ceilings, which was the very small usually shuttered windows which were also an aid in keeping temperature adjusted. Early kilns for making pale malt would, like oasts, have employed wooden slatted kilning floors covered with horse hair mats over open fire baskets. Later nineteenth century malthouses such as at Hadlow or Gravesend (now flats), Faversham (Tesco) and St Stephens, Canterbury (Barrett’s car sales) which can been clearly identified by their scale, utilised wire mesh kilning floors which allowed higher temperatures for dark malt.

    Malting pic 2 Perry Street Oast, 2011

    For those researching malthouses there are pre nineteenth century references in leases, marriage settlements and legal documents which give sparse information, usually the parish, name of owner, and sometimes, of the occupier. Locations are vague such as to the north of the London road. Identifying the locations in the field is difficult to impossible. As illustrated by the photographs in the book redundant malthouses were often converted into dwellings and have lost all features such as kilns. In nineteenth century newspaper sales advertisements for malthouses it was often stressed that they were suitable for conversion into cottages. Unfortunately many, particularly later eighteenth century and nineteenth century malthouses stood in urban areas, became valuable redevelopment sites, and have been demolished.

    The book is not intended to be a compendium of all that is known about malthouses in Kent. There were one or two malthouses in almost every parish over the centuries, and their enumeration would be tedious. The book sets out to describe the floor malting process as utilised in Kent (as distinct from pneumatic malting which is currently employed in Norfolk and elsewhere) and the buildings employed, and to try to explain the decline and disappearance of the industry from Kent. It also lists and illustrates those malthouses which remain, showing a progression in building form.

    I hope those with an interest in Kent’s industrial history will find the book a useful guide to this neglected area of our past and will use it to visit some of the sites. I have to caution though that access to the inside of buildings is only possible at Faversham at Tescos, Canterbury if buying a car and at Hythe, and even in these places most features have been removed.

    9781445653068

    James Preston's Malting and Malthouses in Kent is available for purchase now.

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